Directed by Mark Henn
Written by Broose Johnson, Tim Hodge, Shirtley Pierce
Art Direction by Robert Ty Stanton (not to be confused with Bob Stanton)
Music by Stephen James Taylor, Gary Hines and Billy Steele, Performance by Sounds of Blackness
I initially saw clips of this short from Tumblr, it was exciting to see that Disney made a new traditionally animated short in 2015, weird that it was late in the year. Then I was disappointed that I was wrong, this new Disney Animation was more then Ten Years Old. Though I did a little more research and found that the animation was made in 1999 that's seventeen years (well 16 from 2015) and it took another three years to come to the public's eye. From my knowledge the short wasn't exposed till the 2002 Direct-to-DVD that pretty much was hidden away in the Disney Vault. One day I'd love to raid that vault for it's hidden secrets. I'm the worst thief since I don't try to make a buck off the pilfered treasures, I just want to swim in the multitudes of media that haven't seen the light of day for decades. Anyhow, I'll work on my personal exploits later, for now let's enjoy this hidden short from the Mouse coffer.
Everything starts with an introduction from James Earl Jones (I can say he's Darth Vader, King of Africa twice, or I'm "Watching CNN", though I'll let someone else take those jokes). The introduction is beautiful, it's a very well announced and deliberate synopsis of the emotions that one needs to have when watching the film, even if the short takes you into these feelings already. The Animation opens with a beautiful quilt, an animated quilt, that like all quilts visualize a story or a past within its patches, sewn into a blanket. Warm memories in warm fabric.
The story begins with introducing John Henry and his enslavement, as was his wife, it seems that this was during the end of slavery, since the next scene they're married. The famous hammer was made from their chains, a golden horizon setting and their lives baring well. Then a bit of foreshadowing falls upon the couple with the narrator's next words. The narrator, an older sounding women, implies that she is Mrs. Henry (Polly Henry) throwing a quote that John said "I'll die with this hammer". It's grim, foreboding, and hopeful, since this hammer takes all the abuse and forms it into a future that effects all positively. Then the setting changes to men working on a railroad. Each man on the railroad was promised land of their own, and land ownership was a big deal, still is today, though back in the 1800s that meant a lot more rights and hold within politics and community. And the men couldn't keep up the pace to get that land. Then big John Henry comes along with hammer in hand to help them along the way. John slaps the tracks with one great swing. He hammers the spikes into the rails, creating encouragement and slapping in place spikes that would take more swings than most have the strength or stamina.
Tea Steeping and Gom embracing the American Folk Tale
Also his wife is singing during this montage of hammering, because it's a Disney cartoon, still a beautiful voice, but not really needed. It progresses the story and that this mighty man is a folk tale, to encourage those and raise the spirits of men and women alike to never stop and keep pushing for a greater good, a good they may never see in their life time, though an assured good. With the song playing and at this time being sung by everyone at the camp, they toss around a montage of his folk life, in the quilted style. Which flips back to the present where the men are testing their strength with John Henry arm wrestling, no one is able to stand next to him in strength, even when ganging up in groups. Though his wife beats him with a kiss, a sweet sentiment, though it reminds me of "Return of the King" Eowyn standing tall declaring "I am no Man!" Not a man beat him that day, except an amazing woman and wife.
In mid-song or at the end of the song (pretty much it was around the choirs so it's fine where they ended) the villain appears, being rude and stops their collective joy. It's the machine that raced John, the steam powered railroad vehicle. Vehicle is the correct way of explaining it, since it's not really a car or truck, but something steampunk, a hodgepodge of machines. Why I'm excited about the machine isn't that it's an exciting villain, I'm excited for the battle of wills, the strength shown by John Henry, his determination to defeat another aggressor of negativity.
The steam machine pulls away from John, Mr. Henry pushes himself and flies past the machine to the mountain. Then the vehicle starts busting through the mountain since it's not sundown yet, John takes up a second hammer. Two hammers in each hand then starts swinging through solid rock. The Machine and John side by side, showing what each one could do with clever wit and strength of body and mind. They show each hammered flash with an outline of both the man and the machine. John comes out of the mountain, in pain and loss of strength, he worked himself to death, Polly by his side and hammer in hand, speaks his last goodbye.
It turns out that Polly was telling the story to her and John's child. Right by the train tracks that her John hammered and created an amazing and great man. We come back to a landscape that shows the land that John helped to make their own and stop a crooked machine and business from stealing that away. James Earl Jones then tells us that there's a great statue respecting the great man where the story took place.
The design of all the characters are minimal, enough detail that one can figure out which character is which. I love this type of look for cartoons and animations, since a lot can be done with these types of illustrations. As the film goes beyond the quilt there's a lot more detail, also the outline reminds me of Ed, Edd, & Eddy, since it keeps moving. The designs look like that of the same designer of Sword in the Stone, maybe Milt Khal or one of the Nine Old Men of Disney. I love the way that things look with the sketchy lines and the sharp colors behind them, it's really gorgeous that they made something like this though never thought to use it again.
Gom giving us a hourly update on what O'clock it is, you have to be selected to this position.
In general I enjoyed this animation and the story was strong too, though the music added too much to the short film. As in they should have focused on one or the other, the music made it too happy to me or if they were going for that emotion they could have put more enfaces. Personally if the singing was taken out this would be a perfect short, though I'd still watch this in it's original presentation.
It can really be seen as a means to experiment with music, sound, designs, and new programs that would be used in the Tarzan, Fantasia 2000, and The Emperor's New Groove. Though it was released to the public in 2002 where Treasure Planet wasn't a musical, Brother Bear's designs were nothing like this, and Lilo & Stitch had great pacing and a wonderful story (I wanna watch this movie again). This was a short, and it lived up to its title, less than eleven minutes, but felt like seconds. It's action was strong and movement felt like everything was planned to the second, relevant and fluid. Still a feature staring the mighty mallet man, John Henry would be beautiful, though drawn out, as a short it controls your expectations and draws one into the story and the songs, celebrating the life of a folk hero.
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