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Toon Talk: Disney's American Legends
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by Kirby C. Holt (archives)
February 14, 2002
Kirby reviews Disney's American Legends DVD featuring John Henry, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and The Brave Engineer.

Toon Talk
Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt

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(c) Disney

American Legends
We Could Be Heroes

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At a time when patriotism in this country couldn't be any grander, Disney has released a DVD collecting some of their animated tales based on the legends of the larger-then-life heroes who helped shaped the cultural fabric of the United States of America.

Hosted by national treasure James Earl Jones, Disney's American Legends serves not just as an educational and entertaining primer of these "simple men who did mighty things", but as an inspiration for all to find their own heroes in their everyday lives.

Jones opens the program recounting how the oral history of these early Americans would grow with each retelling, into the legends that would "forge our national backbone". These tales provided America with it's own mythology, and were a constant source of hope as the country continued to grow across the continent.

It's no wonder that Walt Disney, a true American, would take to such stories for his animated films. As is witness in a lot of his projects, Walt had a true sense of Americana, and he delighted in being able to retell these stories to new audiences. That dedication continues even today, as witnessed by the newest short, presented first here, John Henry (2000, directed by Mark Henn).

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(c) Disney

John Henry was a former slave who's mighty strength made him one of the earliest African-American role models. Wielding a sledge hammer forged from the chains that bound him in servitude, he was a one-man railroad crew who "could move mountains". He is put to the ultimate test when he faces a mechanical power hammer that threatens to take away his land.

This short is a beautiful throw-back to classic traditional animation, with it's inspired use of a patchwork quilt framing device and a stirring gospel music score. (Click for the full Toon Talk review of John Henry).

Next is the story of the life of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. With a tin pot for a hat and the Bible at his side, Johnny set out into the wilderness to do his own part in helping the western march: plant apple trees all over the countryside to help feed the pioneering settlers. As evident in this sweet, gentle classic, he proved that one need not have great size or strength to make a difference.

Originally a segment of the 1948 package feature Melody Time (and the only short here previously released on DVD), Johnny Appleseed (directed by Wilfred Jackson) features the voice of Dennis Day as Johnny and his angel, with the music of Paul Smith, including the song "The Lord is Good to Me", which went onto become a Sunday school favorite.

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