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Saturday Matinee

Disney Cartoon #57: "John Henry" (October 30, 2000) - published February 4, 2012

by Albert Gutierrez

Turning historical events - and especially historical legend - into film often creates a dividing line between fans and detractors. With Disney, fans and critics are extra watchful of how close the filmmakers will stick to the truth, or how far they'll stray from it. On the one hand, Disney can produce the not-entirely-accurate costume drama The Sword and the Rose, which received warm critical acclaim in spite of its low box-office returns. On the other hand, a symbolic film like Disney's Pocahontas does fairly well at the box-office, in spite critical reviews that were more focused on the historical inaccuracy rather than the fantastic treatment of issues such as racism, colonialism, and love. Most times, Disney does manage to get the spirit of history right, such as in the whimsical "Ben & Me" or in the young adult novel-turned-film Johnny Tremain. Later efforts by the studio also show a kind respect and appreciation for history. The historical elements and period design of the Pirates of the Caribbean series help to enhance the popcorn-flick quality of the story. Even recent history like 1976 Philadelphia is lovingly recreated in Invincible. An excellent example of history done right through animation is 2000's "John Henry."

John Henry's wife Polly narrates throughout the short, as she tells viewers about her husband. The two were born as slaves, but upon being set free, John shattered his chains. Polly forged them into a hammer (mighty strong woman, she is), and gave it to him as a wedding present. The two went westward, where John got a job driving nails for the railroad tracks. His large frame and brute strength inspires the other workers, and they work together to get the railroad built. Not only is their livelihood on the line, but also the promise of 50 acres of prime land for every worker.

However, a steam engine soon arrives, which many assume will put them all out of a job. John Henry challenges the engine to race: whoever builds the railroad through the mountain first will win the land. At first, the steam engine is in the lead, but John Henry's strength and speed are greater. He eventually reaches the mountain first, to the delight of all the workers who cheer him on. Unfettered, the steam engine then begins digging through the mountain. All seems lost once again, but John soon shows an uncanny strength that gets him through the mountain before the engine, which itself breaks down. The workers celebrate, but John Henry unfortunately collapses from exhaustion. With his trusty hammer in hand, he dies in Polly's arms. John Henry's death is not in vain. Were it not for his strength and determination, no one would have prospered in the valley.

"John Henry" seems like an anomaly to contemporary Disney shorts of the 2000s - few and far between they are - and feels more at home among Disney's earlier shorts that dealt with American legends: "Johnny Appleseed" (1948), "Pecos Bill" (1948), "The Brave Engineer" (1950), "Paul Bunyan" (1958), and "The Saga of Windwagon Smith" (1961). The visual style of "John Henry" fits well with those cartoons, and could have easily been made by Walt and his team of animators. The visual style intentionally emulates both Mary Blair (in the flashbacks to John's legendary childhood) and the graphic design from the Xerography process of the 1960s. Outlines of the characters even include the rough tracings that helped define the xerox style. It is perhaps one of the best short-subject cartoons that Disney animation has done in the past twenty-years, trumping even a couple sequences from 1999's Fantasia/2000.

The director of "John Henry" was animator Mark Henn, who's best known as supervising animator for several Disney heroines, including Jasmine and Mulan. Henn had been with the company since The Great Mouse Detective, and "John Henry" served as his first time in the director's chair. After working on the short, Henn went back to supervising animation, most recently on Tiana in The Princess and the Frog and the titular character in Winnie the Pooh. Henn's work here shows a carefully trained eye for power of angles and shadows. Look above at the two shots. The scale of the valley suddenly diminishes John into an ordinary man. He may be tall and powerful, but the land is vast and untamed. Likewise, the next shot of John's face-off with the steam engine conductor cuts him down, but also gives him strength. The conductor and the camera are looking down at John, their towering suggests that they must be stronger than he is. However, the conductor is seen only in silhouette, thus depriving him of a true identity. He is merely part of the machine, unlike John Henry, who is his own man and the audience can identify with him.

The scale comparison is then contrasted in the shots below, in which John is outpacing the train. He has now become the strength overshadowing the weaker force. The next shot shows John feverishly hammering away inside the mountain. The constant striking of iron to the mountain creates flashes of light, as the heat between the two forces turn his hammer into hues of bright orange and yellow, almost like molten rock. Putting John Henry in silhouette now gives him the appearance of being part of a machine, but we still see features that identify who he is. This becomes a true sign of man's dominance over machine. Even in the most dangerous conditions, John Henry can still beat the steam engine.

John's race against the engine also is a classic tale of Man vs. Technology, which itself can be a double-edged sword. While John does defeat the engine this time, it's only a matter of time before a newer and faster engine is created. The eternal struggle between natural strength and manmade force is truly the stuff of legends, especially when humanity wins over the machine. That's not to say that such stories are promoting Luddite rebellions, but to celebrate our own natural power. These stories serve as an inspiration, even with the bittersweet nature of the ending. John Henry's death is not a sign of man's failure to stop a machine; after all, he still beat the engine. If anything, John Henry's is the sign that men are still mortal, but the work they accomplish and the people they inspire ensures that they live forever.

After an appearance at the Giffoni Film Festival, "John Henry" was intended to be released to theatres in late 2000. Disney had hired renowned actor James Earl Jones to host an introduction for a theatrical (and presumably, home video) release of 1946's controversial film Song of the South, which would have placed the film and story in a historical context. He would then have introduced "John Henry," essentially showing how far Disney has come since then. Alas, the theatrical re-release never happened - a variety of reasons are given, the prime one being Maya Angelou's vocal protestations - and "John Henry" instead made its debut on Disney Channel. It would later be included the hour long special "Disney's American Legends," again hosted by Jones, who refers to "John Henry" as a "towering example of leadership and determination." The special went straight to DVD in 2002, and featured "John Henry", along with the classic cartoons "Johnny Appleseed" (1948), "The Brave Engineer" (1950), and "Paul Bunyan" (1958).

Author's Note: You may have noticed that the visual quality of the screen caps for this week's article are of a much lower standard than usual Saturday Matinee articles. I had spent all week trying to track down the "Disney's American Legends" DVD, to no success. As a result, the images here were captured from a YouTube upload of the cartoon, which was not available in the best quality. Sorry for the inconvenience.


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