REVIEW: Disney's American Legends
Since this is July 4th weekend, I thought I would look at Disney's American Legends which is sadly NOT on Disney+. Disney's American Legends is a package show featuring four of Disney's shorts about America's tall tales. It is hosted by James Earl Jones who wonderfully narrates and weaves the stories together.
First up, we have John Henry (2002), a story about a freed slave who ends up working on the railroad. When the railroad sends a steam hammer that threatens the jobs of and promise of land to the railmen, John Henry challenges the company to see who can get the farthest by sundown. John, a man of great strength, hammers away, even through a solid rock wall and wins. But, not at great cost to himself and his life. The look of the short is gorgeous with its patchwork quilt feel. What is cool is the clean up of the animation is imperfect and you can often see construction lines. But, it adds to the quirky look. The music is told in old spiritual form adding to the beauty of the piece.
Next is The Legend of Johnny Appleseed (1948 as part of the animated feature Melody Time) which tells the story of John Chapman, who's pioneering spirit led him to go west and plant apple trees all along the way, providing nourishment for other people heading out west. He kept planting until the day he died. This short is pure Mary Blair, combining her color styling and flat stylized art with traditional animation. It's an absolutely beautiful short with wonderful music.
Next is Paul Bunyan (1958), the story of a giant who grew up to be the country's greatest lumberjack. Having mysteriously arrived in a giant cradle in Maine, the townsfolk raised him as their own until one day when Paul left a note saying he was off west where there was more room for him to log. Through his travels, he meets Babe the Blue Ox and they have many adventures together, often creating some of America's most "natural" landmarks such as Minnesota's lakes, the Missouri River and the Grand Tetons. Then, one day, the loggers jobs are in danger when technology threatens them. Like John Henry, Paul challenges the logging company. But, sadly he loses as the two go off to more adventures. Paul Bunyan has that crisp, stylized design that was prevalent in the 50s. It looks great and it's always nice to hear Thurl Ravencroft's voice.
Finally, we have The Brave Engineer (1950), the story of Casey Jones. What's interesting about this one is that, while stories like John Henry and Paul Bunyan challenged technology, Casey Jones was all about his railway engine. He has to get the mail out, but things like weather and damsels in distress tied to the tracks keep getting in the way. In the end, through it all, he still makes it on time...almost. The Brave Engineer is a cute story with some great animation for sure.
The strongest of the package is definitely John Henry which benefits from being produced during a more enlightened time and told with great respect to people of color. Even the patchwork quilt look pays homage to the quilting black women did back in the day.
I wish, though, they would have swapped The Brave Engineer for Pecos Bill who is a bigger hero in terms of American folklore than Casey Jones. Although, why they couldn't have included both, I'm not sure since the whole program is only 58 minutes and was straight to video.
Growing up in the Midwest, I heard so many stories of these heroes, particularly Paul Bunyan, and I remember carrying around a book on American tall tales. So, these stories are particularly meaningful to me. That said, you didn't have to grow up with them to appreciate that they represented the spirit of this nation and that Disney lovingly told these tales in the only way it knew how, through gorgeous animation against stunning design.
Currently, you have to buy Disney's American Legends on DVD or digital download in order to watch it, but I have hopes it will eventually end up on Disney+.