Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ub Iwerk's The Headless Horseman VS Disney's Sleepy Hollow

It's that time of year again. Carved pumpkins line people's porches and parents grudgingly buy big boxes of candy while their kids decide what to wear for Halloween. Animated cartoons and films have long been made centered around the holiday. In fact, just last year three titles were released alone (Hotel Transylvania, Frankenweenie, and ParaNorman). However, very few such animated films have reached the acclaim of Disney's version of Sleepy Hollow, which curiously was adapted by Disney's rival, Ub Iwerks, over ten years earlier as a theatrical short.

A poster for the 1934 Comicolor short.

A poster for the better known 1949 film.

Because the two films were based on the same story by Washington Irving and were made by staff associated with Disney they have several similarities. But, it is probably easier to notice their differences. The Sleepy Hollow segment was part of Disney's 'package film' series and runs at half an hour, whereas Iwerks's version is under ten minutes long. Since Iwerks's short was made in the 1930s, it utilizes the old school, bouncy rubber hose technique. Its color pallet is also quite limited, since Disney was the only animation studio with the rights of using the three color Technicolor process up until 1936. Instead, the short utilizes the two color Cinecolor process, as did most other cartoon companies at the time.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is far more sophisticated in many ways. Since the movie was made right before Disney released Cinderella, its first 'true' feature since 1942, the animation is fully released and very fluid. It's moody use of Techicolor and perspective greatly heightens the contrasting scenes at Katrina's dinner party and Ichabod's encounter with the Headless Horseman. Ichabod also makes heavy use of dialogue (narrated and sung primarily by Bing Cosby), whereas Iwerks was more comfortable using pantomime and sight gags to get his message across. Thus, the characters in the Disney version are given more of a back story and fleshed out, while Iwerks manages to establish the basics allowed within the short runtime of his cartoon. (Interestingly enough, Ichabod and his rival, Brom Bones, look similar in both films, but Katrina does not. She is noticeably bigger in the 1934 incarnation, which is closer to the original source material. However, Disney's Katrina resembles a more aloof Cinderella.)

Iwerks's Brom Bones, Katrina Van Tassel, and Ichabod Crane. 

Disney's version.

As for the Headless Horseman himself, Disney and Iwerks handle the character rather differently. Both of the horsemen are introduced as menacing figures. Iwerks establishes this using his multiplane camera (which would later be adopted and refined by Disney after Iwerks returned to the studio). The camera adds a sense of depth as the Horseman races across the screen, accompanied by a haunting score by Carl Stalling (who later became famous for composing various Looney Tunes shorts). However, the mysteriousness of the Horseman is quickly pushed aside for laughs. The figure is revealed to be Brom Bones, and Ichabod later crashes Brom's and Katrina's wedding by dressing as the Horseman.

In The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, none of this happens. Although the Horseman is a legendary figure and is implied to be Brom, the events that occur after Ichabod encounters the Horseman are left for the audience to interpret. Ichabod's fate is never fully revealed after his disappearance, giving the audience the choice whether to believe the legend or not.

Iwerks introduces the Headless Horseman via the multiplane camera.

So does Disney, in a more sinister way.

So which film is 'better?' It is really hard to make a fair comparison, since they were made at different points in history and have different intents in terms of entertainment. Both films are historically significant and have very effective musical scores. Those looking for strong character development and a good scare will probably prefer the Disney version. However, anyone simply wanting some light hearted entertainment and a quick laugh will like Iwerks's short.

What do you think? Watch the two films and compare them yourself.

The complete short.

Click here to watch the segment of Disney's film (or else Ichabod will eat his hat). 

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