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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

DISNEY'S AMERICAN LEGENDS (1948; 1959; 1958; 2000)

Repackaged to include a new ‘legend’ (the demographically inclusive African-American JOHN HENRY), those indomitable Disney ‘marketeers’ repurposed three earlier American Tall Tales to make this kid-friendly omnibus DVD (uselessly intro'd by James Earl Jones). It might as well be titled The Decline and Fall of Disney Animated Americana, though it’s unlikely the target audience will spot the gratis history lesson in hand-drawn animation. JOHNNY APPLESEED, pinched from feature length MELODY TIME, turns this eccentric figure into a Midwestern St. Francis of Macintosh.

Oldest of the quartet, it’s gently styled as a Grandma Moses sampler, pleasant & uneventful like its vocals by Jack Benny regular Dennis Day. But what will kids make of this rara avis of a wandering agra-monk? Released as a stand-alone short subject two years later, THE BRAVE ENGINEER salutes Casey Jones in a near-addendum to the grand train sequences from DUMBO/’41. Strongest of the bunch, and saved for last, it has twenty giggles/minute, with old-fashioned Disney inanimate-to-animate transfiguration jokes and Jerry Colonna as our steam-whistle voiced guide.

Eight years later, PAUL BUNYAN uses U.P.A.’s limited animation style to flatten out Disney’s signal roundness. In the right hands, a freeing style, but Disney ‘corporate think’ freezes everything up. And how to react to its deforestation glorification? Or how its Man vs. Machine storyline is largely repeated in the recent JOHN HENRY film, placed first to hide its weakness.*

It can be tough to locate some of the rarer Disney shorts, so it’s a shame to get only one and a half 'finds' in this bunch. Oh well, Disney’ll repackage them again before too long. (PECOS BILL, anyone?)

LINK: *For a purer JOHN HENRY moment, try Paul Robeson’s classic agit-prop (with Pro-Union trimmings).

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