Archive | May 2013

Disney’s version of “The Wind in the Willows”

Mr Toad and Horse

My girlfriend and I enjoyed a fun treat tonight — watching the Disney version of The Wind in the Willows. When I was a kid, I’d loved “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland, and now that I’m older I’ve also had a chance to appreciate the original book by Kenneth Grahame. Yet somehow through all that, I’ve never had a chance to see the entire cartoon by Walt Disney — at least, not since I was a kid. So tonight, I was finally going to get to watch it.

There’s a fascinating history behind the movie. Walt Disney started animating the film in 1941, and it would’ve been only the fifth feature-length film ever released by the Disney studios, according to Wikipedia. But of course, World War II reached the U.S. at the end of the year, and some of Disney’s animators were drafted. Even his finished cartoons were impossible to distribute overseas in the biggest markets. So the project was put on hold…

It didn’t start again until 1945 — and by then, it was trimmed down until it was just half of a two-story movie. (The other half being The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.) This leaves the movie feeling kind of lopsided — although it also feels more like a storybook instead of a Walt Disney cartoon, with Basil Rathbone providing the narration.

“If you were asked to choose the most fabulous character in English literature, who would it be? Robin Hood? King Arthur? Becky Sharp? Sherlock Holmes? Oliver Twist, perhaps? Well, any one of them would be an excellent choice. Still, for the most fabulous character of all, I would nominate… a toad….”

I think I was most disappointed by the fact that there is no wild ride in the movie. At least, not with a motor car. But at least there is one delightfully reckless scene where Toad crashes through the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage — singing a duet with his horse! This is the moment that catches the giddy joy of the character that I’ll always remember, as he sings — with his horse — that “we’re merrily on our way, to nowhere at all!”

Honey… Honey… Lion! A Story from Africa by Jan Brett

Cover Illustration from Honey Honey Lion by Jan Brett

I didn’t know this. In Africa, there’s a bird that will track a bee to its home, and then lead over a badger to crack open the hive, so that both of them can share the honey. “That is the way it has always been,” writes Jan Brett in a wonderful children’s picture book. But as always, the star of this story is her detailed illustrations of all the animals.

There’s a black badger gorging on eight different stolen honeycombs. (“Maybe this day Badger was hungrier than usual,” writes Brett.) You can tell that the Badger’s partner, the bird, is starting to feel peeved. Brett’s drawing shows the bird perched on the remnants of a tree trunk, with its head cocked to one side, and a scowl in its tiny brown bird eyes…

As with all her books, there’s a wealth of illustrations — including extra illustrations on either side of the page. There’s the giant tall trees on a grassy African Savannah. And she peeks in on all the story’s other animal characters, including the elephants and the hippopotamuses. But my favorite illustration shows the happy badger as he sleeps off his tremendous meal. He lies on his back — pointing his soft belly fur to the sky — while his pink-soled feet roll lazily to the side.

It’s wonderful to see the scenery of Africa as the bird plays a trick on the badger. It flies past his home in the baobab tree, and over the hippopotamuses in the water hole. It flies over the warthogs by the termite mound, and past the jackals near a long hollow log. There’s a stand of papyrus, and a field of golden bristle grass — but the puffing badger, following behind, only wants to get to the honey.

You have to lift a flap to see what’s hiding under the acacia tree. But there’s a big, yellow paw sticking out — and in a second set of illustrations at the sides of the page, two giraffes point their strange heads to watch with interest. “Honey… Honey… Lion!” reads the crucial line of dialogue.

“Lion, lion, lion!” screams the badger — as the lion emerges on the next page with a gloriously shaggy mane…

Then all the animals of the savanah start to run — the giraffes and the jacakals , and the elephants. And by the book’s last page, all the animals are now telling a different story — of how important it is to share your honey with the little bird who leads you there. “Be sure and reward her,” they say, over the “bush telegraph” that connects all the animals of Africa.

“Or next time, she will lead you to a lion!”