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Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt
(c) Disney and courtesy of Cartoon Research Co.
An Inspiring Tale for All Ages
The tale of John Henry is a legendary tall one. Born with "a steel hammer in his hand", he became a slave who was freed by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and went to work on the railroad to gain land for himself and his family. Along the way he gained fame for his incredible stamina and acts of strength. When their claim is threatened by a steam drill, John makes the ultimate sacrifice, so that other's will see their dreams come true.
The use of a patchwork quilt and gospel music (provided by the vocal group The Sound of Blackness) to tell the story sets the tone for the short firmly rooting it in African-American cultural history. The use of rough pencil animation, reminiscent of early Xerox processed features of the sixties and seventies, such as 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book, is a throw-back to such experimental Disney shorts as Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom and Pigs is Pigs. It's a definite breath of fresh air from the current crop of crude, gimmicky animated shorts of the last couple of years. Computer animation can be cold sometimes, so it's a pleasure to see an animated short that purposely looks "old-fashioned."
But what really sets this short apart from others is the conviction of the storytellers. Director Mark Henn and screenwriter Shirley Pierce have taken an oft-told tale, that has nonetheless slipped from public consciousness, and reinterpreted it for new audiences. The use of the quilt, especially to narrate how John's brute strength was elevated to super-human, "tall tale" status, is not only an inspired use of animation, but of storytelling technique itself. And not only is the man versus machine aspect integral to the plot, it allows a subtler reading: just like John Henry, the filmmakers are battling their own technological revolution. In this age of computer wizardry, they boldly craft a short film using time-honored traditional animation techniques.
From Snow White to Kuzco, Disney heroes have always braved adversity to rise above their humble beginnings to become the man or woman (... or animal) they were destined to be. That recurrent theme, one that has always drawn myself to the Disney films, is apparent in this short as well. When John's wife Polly (beautifully voiced by actress Alfre Woodard) expresses her fears of him battling the machine, he replies: "If they steal our dreams, they put a chain around our souls. Somebody's got to stand tall". That is inspiring for all, for anybody who has been oppressed.
And when, believing in himself and what he must do, he does triumph, only to be brought down by mortality, it is not a unhappy ending: his spirit lives on in the distant thunderclaps that are attribute to him, hammering away in heaven.
Toon Talk Grade: A
Running Time: 10 minutes
John Henry airs on Monday, February 26th at 8:35 p.m. on The Disney Channel.
Like the legend in which it is based upon, the creation and release of the animated short John Henry has reached it's own, infamous status among animation fans. As the behind-the-scenes drama has been recounted elsewhere, I will not delve into it here but to say that this exceptional short deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible. After several showings in animation festivals and a limited run in California to qualify for Academy Award consideration (which, sadly, it did not receive), it has now made it's national debut on the Disney Channel. While not the best of mediums, sandwiched in-between inane Zoog Disney commercials, one has to admit that more people will see this short on cable then they ever would in any limited release.
Toon Talk Trivia
This is not the first time Disney has used the John Henry legend in it's films. John Henry appeared, along with Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan, in the underrated 1995 live action release Tall Tale, a.k.a. Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill. Pecos Bill was also seen, in animated form, in 1948's Melody Time. Paul Bunyan also appeared in his own 1958 animated short.
Discuss John Henry on the LaughingPlace.com Discussion Boards.
- Jim Hill's Orlando Weekly article on the delayed release of John Henry
- Purchase Tall Tale on VHS (from Amazon.com)
-- Kirby C. Holt
Took Talk: Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt is posted whenever there's something new to review.
The opinions expressed by our Kirby C. Holt, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of LaughingPlace.com or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the future plans of the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.
-- Posted February 26, 2001