Hearken to the tale of the legendary Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky, who once cleared an entire DVD shelf with one blow of his mighty axe.
"Egad!"—Jerry Colonna, narrating "The Brave Engineer"
From the moment the Pilgrims didn't land on Plymouth Rock (or Columbus didn't prove the world was round), America has been as much myth as reality. Our national identity, like any society, is built around our collective acceptance of ideals that often clash with the real struggles, successes, and failures that characterize the American experience. We have a number of these social comfort zones—the notion of a more innocent "golden age" in our past, the promise of unlimited opportunity for everyone (regardless of real struggles over gender, race, and class), and even the notion of progress toward a utopian future. Of course, myths are useful: they give us a sense of hope, a direction toward which we can strive. They also pull us together, providing what James Earl Jones calls the "common ground" of storytelling in his introduction to Disney's American Legends.
Disney's American Legends is a sort of throwback: a compilation film (what Walt used to call a "package feature") with a friendly host offering four tales along a similar theme. Walt himself would have hosted such a thing (or hired a warm-voiced pro like Burl Ives) back in the 1950s or '60s. Who better than James Earl Jones, who can project dignity and good cheer at once, like a kindly uncle who always has a good story—that just happens to have a moral to it? Actually, he has four stories tonight, all offering lessons on perseverance and courage.
"John Henry" is the newest of the lot (made in 2000) and easily the best. Former slave John Henry and his wife Polly move west, seeking to forge a new life with a hammer forged from John's old chains of bondage. With the promise of prosperity, John builds the railroads. But John still has one more battle to fight: this "steel driving natural man" must pit his strength against faceless industrialization, the new slavery that will soon threaten the freedom of his people. Based on a story from the 1870s, the short features an adventurous art style, with impressionistic backgrounds (swept from a Van Gogh painting) and an "unfinished" quality (pencil lines still show through on the figures) that gives a constant sense of motion, of a story that is itself unfinished, a promise of true prosperity yet to come. The quilting motif and the memorable gospel theme (by Sounds of Blackness) remind us of the sense of community that legends like John Henry are meant to foster. Although it would have been nice to see this short in its original widescreen format (here it is cropped to full frame), it is nevertheless a joy to watch.
"Johnny Appleseed" is based on the real escapades of John Chapman, a slightly crackpot vegetarian activist of the early 19th century. Featuring a rounder animation style with slightly flattened backgrounds by Mary Blair (characteristic of the late 1940s at Disney—this short was originally packaged with Melody Time in 1948), the story seems curiously familiar. In Pittsburgh around 1806, a "mighty queersome" angel in buckskins visits the clean-cut Johnny and tells him to go West, in spite of the fact that he is a skinny nobody. So they sing a song about apples, featuring a few acts of magic, the angel dresses Johnny up in household objects (including a pot on his head), and sends him off. Johnny quickly makes some animal friends and becomes a folk hero, leaving "love and faith and the apple tree" wherever he goes. The whole thing seems like a dress rehearsal for Cinderella (which would come out two years later and was also directed by Wilfred Jackson), though with an odd religious streak: Johnny's theme song is "The Lord is Good to Me." There is little dramatic conflict to the story (long sequences like the settler's picnic fill the time), but the story is charming nonetheless. Like all the older shorts in this collection, "Johnny Appleseed" is starting to show its age with a bit of fading, but it is in pretty good condition. And look out for that classically cryptic "Apple core! Baltimore!" joke (the one you have seen in the old Chip and Dale shorts with Donald Duck). I once asked one of the old Disney animators what it meant, and he just shrugged and said, "I never understood it either—Walt told us to put it in." Oddly, the original press release for this DVD promised that the "Donald Applecore" cartoon (from 1952) would be included on this disc, but it is not.
"Paul Bunyan" is the most conspicuously hyperbolic entry in this collection. Making no pretense to reality, this 1958 short employs the angular and stylized look characteristic of most late-1950s animation (every studio was cashing in UPA's success and trying to cut budgets), some jazzy music, and great foreshortening effects to convey size and motion. When a giant baby is found in a Maine town, the locals raise the huge Paul Bunyan, who grows to be 63 ax-handles high and sings with the voice of Thurl Ravenscroft. Of course, Paul goes West…
I want to digress for a moment on this subject of "going West," which seems to be the common theme in all the shorts on this compilation. Colonialism, in the guise of the Western pioneer, is a classic American myth. The "pioneering spirit" of settlers, carving civilization out of the "wilderness" plays up themes of personal courage through the independent work ethic. In this variation of the hero myth, the lone pioneer tames the wild and sacrifices himself to make a place for the community. Of course, all this ignores the fact that much of the land was already settled (by them pesky redskins, as they say in old Western movies) and most pioneer myths continue to marginalize race and gender (John Henry being a notable exception). But the notion of a lawless frontier that must be made proper is a compelling theme and seems to recur in most of our cultural mythology. Even when it impinges on our cultural memory of real historical figures (like Billy the Kid, who became a folk hero in dime novels, or the martyrs of the Alamo, who died defending Texas's right to protect slavery), we still value that idea of the self-made man fighting for the freedom of others.
In the case of Paul Bunyan, this takes the form of Paul's battle with an industrial machine (in this case, a chainsaw), parallel to John Henry but without the subtle implications of corporate slavery. But mostly, Paul's story is a series of wacky jokes about his gigantic size, broken up by a ballad reminiscent of Davy Crockett. Crazy hyperboles ("It was so cold that even the fire froze!") are related by a succession of narrators, suggesting the social participation required for mythmaking. Paul has a rather disturbingly physical relationship with his ox Babe (they tend to snuggle an awful lot for 1958), but this only makes the whole business seem sillier. And that is the point: "Paul Bunyan" plays up humor much more than sentiment and succeeds.
The most dated of the shorts is the 1950 entry, "The Brave Engineer," based on the adventures of John Luther Jones, popularly known as Casey Jones. Although James Earl Jones talks in his introduction about how immigrants built the railroads, you will not see any of them here. Instead, through lush backgrounds and rubbery "squash and stretch" animation characteristic of Disney shorts during their most prolific period, Casey races through a series of silly sight gags to deliver the mail. But it is Jerry Colonna's constant chatter as the narrator—"Egad! Egad! Egad!"—that gets to be too much at times.
There may be too much chatter on "The Brave Engineer," but there is not too much of anything else on the actual disc. In contrast to Disney's recent Walt Disney Treasures series, Disney's American Legends is clearly a quickie compilation package meant for kids. The James Earl Jones interstitials are interesting (he is always a welcome sight), but they offer little detail about the real stories behind the legends, and nothing about the production history of these shorts. Extras are few: Walt's 1957 television introduction for "Johnny Appleseed," in which Walt characterizes his own family as pioneers, and an on-screen game called "American Legends: A Learning Adventure." The game consists of two parts: a trivia game with questions pertaining to "Paul Bunyan" and a guessing game based on "John Henry." The latter involves guessing the order of spikes to hit (a set of three, then a set of four), but offers no feedback after each attempt. Working through the combinations on the set of four gets pretty tedious, and small children are likely to lose interest. Ironically, they will not miss much if they give up: the payoff for solving the two puzzles is a pair of quick clip shows from the "Johnny Appleseed" and "Brave Engineer" segments.
Overall, the cartoons are pretty entertaining, but the disc itself seems like a missed opportunity. More shorts, more cultural history, more educational resources—something should have been added here. If, as James Earl Jones says in the finale, the message of this film is to "look for the heroes around you and celebrate them," Disney's American Legends is an interesting, if half-hearted, attempt to carry out that advice.
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