John Henry

A Special Cartoon

Release Date : October 30, 2000

Synopsis

The classic story of the steel-drivin' man and his battle against a modern steam engine.

Characters

John Henry
Polly
MacTavish
Thomas

Credits

Director
Mark Henn
Story
Shirley Pierce
Art Director
Robert Ty Stanton
Producer
Steven Keller

Awards

Nominated for an Annie Award (Outstanding Achievement in an Animated Short Subject. Short Subject, 2000.)

DVD

United States
American Legends

Technical Specification

Animation Type: Standard Animation
Sound Mix: Stereo
Aspect Ratio: 1.37 : 1
Negative Format: 35mm
Print Format: 35mm
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Original Language: English

Released by Buena Vista Pictures

Comments

From Jerry Edwards : John Henry was made to comfort Mark Henn, a top animator who wanted to direct but obviously wasn't ready to direct a feature. But Disney wanted to keep him happy. The design work and the final short are pretty good. Originally, they were going to release it with a Disney film last Christmas for a week in Los Angeles so it could quality for the Academy Award. However, some of the Song of the South backlash has Disney scared (they were preparing a release of the feature with a James Earl Jones introduction to set the film in context and release John Henry with it). But Maya Angelou and others stormed Disney and Disney backed out. So now Disney doesn't know how to release this short by a white director about a black subject.
From Jerry Beck : Disney's JOHN HENRY is an OK film, but not great. It looks like the sort of excercise you'd give animators between bigger assignments, and I guess that's what it is. The film tries to tell the story of the real man (told in traditional, if bland, character animation, purposely looking like the 1960s xerox-look, with construction lines visable through the characters) and the legend created around him (those limited sequences done in a cool tribute to Mary Blair). Narrated by his wife Polly (Alfre Woodard), she explains how she made his famous hammer out of his chains (this being right after the slaves were freed). John Henry joins the railroad team and inspires the workers with his great strength. When a steam engine threatens their livelyhood, John Henry challenges the machine to a race. When his wife objects, John says his big line: "If they steal our dreams, they'll put a chain around our souls. Someone's gotta stand tall!" (Maya Angelou couldn't have said it any! better). John beats the Steam Engine, as they build the railroad through a rock mountain. But after beating the machine, John Henry collapses and dies. The film ends with John's wife and son looking out on the valley, a valley which wouldn't have prospered without the hammer of John Henry. It's well made, but is no comparision to the 'Legends and Tall Tales' of Disney's past (Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, etc.). It's certainly a subject worthy of animation, but end result here feels too much like something the studio would have produced in the late 1960s or 70s for insertion on The Wonderful World of Color.

It's well intentioned but just not up to par with the current features or segments in Fantasia 2000. (I originally wrote this for my own website: http://www.cartoonresearch.com.)


From Ryan : I don't know why Disney was so worried about releasing this short. The black people in here are not being stereotyped as they are in some of those early Mickey shorts and Silly Symphonies. This short is not racist, but neither is it by any means politically correct. It is Disney's adaptation of the American folktale of the freed slave who died after competing with a modern steamdrill in building part of a railroad. This film is rather odd for a Disney film of today. In fact, I find it hard to believe that it was only produced about a year or two ago. It seems more like a Disney film that would have been produced during Walt's time. The animation is quite nice and it is rather interesting as it appears to still be in pencil test form. I also find the background art of this short to be quite interesting. It is quite primitive like a Grandma Moses painting.
From Zach Burgess : The story of John Henry is a wonderful music filled biography, made in a way that kids of all ages can enjoy it!
From Jeremy : This is probably the highest quality, and most thoughtfully created animated work that Disney produced in the last 12 years. It is a shame that the studio didn't have the intestinal fortitude to release this film.

The reason the film was originally given the green-light had to do with two reasons -- the Studio's desire for an Academy Award and projected artist availability during a production pipeline window. The film was produced in-between the feature films "Mulan" and "Lilo and Stitch" at the now closed Feature Animation Studios that was part of Disney/MGM Studios in Florida.

Though the Director, Disney Animator Mark Henn, and the Producer, Disney Production and Marketing Executive Steven Keller -- are both white, they hired an African American writer, Shirley Pierce. Keller and Henn also hired the Grammy Award winning group "The Sounds of Blackness" to create all new music for the film.

The production team thoroughly researched the art of the Harlem renaissance period, and brought in reknowned artists such as Thomas Blackshear to help develop a rough-cleanup style of pencil animation that was perfect for the subject matter. The cut-down version that appears in the home-video release "Disney's American Legends" is unfortunately chopped on both ends, and omits the music and art of the credits.

The film wound up winning several film festivals and a slightly less chopped-down version is available via Disney Educational productions. It is a shame that this film never got its theatrical release.

Disney's lack of vision and management in the last 10 years had the effect of abdicating its position of animation leadership to others. It is decisions like its failure to release "John Henry" that forced Disney into its position of weakness, and forced it to buy Pixar.


From Billy Joe : If you are looking for this short on video, you can find it on Disney's American Legends which also features Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and Casey Jones with introductions by James Earl Jones. Anyway on with my opinion about the film.

This is probably one of Disney's best works of their new years. It does feature Xeorx-like animation, which was used in films such as 101 Dalmatians and Disney's short film Goliath II. It also has fun songs performed by the African American slaves. It also proves that man can beat the machine. Remember that man invented the machine.

This short was never released theatrically. It doesn't have the African American caricatures that appeared in early Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse cartoons. The film was meant to tell history, and it could've qualified for an Academy Award. Oh well, it was Disney's decision.

Like I mentioned, you can find this on a certain video. I give this short a 9 out of 10.


From Autumn : This is an inspiring short with moving music and a great message. My two boys (four and two) have seen it over and over again. They love it. Some of the two year old's first words were "John Henry." I know that there's the industry criticism, I get it. There's that analytical way to look at this movie and 'is the style of animation dated?' 'are the themes relevant?' 'is it somehow offensive to someone?' Coming at it from the fresh perspective of a child, (where I think the real joy and value can be found in life,) we find this short to be moving and to resonate. I find myself humming the tunes around the house and we sing the songs in the car. My boys wander the house hammering rail spikes and besting big machines. We quote the memorable lines and reenact the best scenes. There's the value in a piece of art - when it touches people. My little ones are learning about American History and asking questions about slavery and jumping over brooms and why railroads are important. They're singing and taking joy in in the legacy of America. I find John Henry to be one of my favorite Disney pieces.

Referenced Comments