Monday, February 1, 2016

Short Subject: John Henry (2000)

My favourite of the Disney Legends shorts.

In fact with the construction lines here on the characters I initially thought this was much older short, made around the same time as the others, and was surprised to learn it was made relatively recently.  Especially in the era where the fab five were doing cheaper made for TV shorts we have this beautiful creation.
I love how the quilting element is worked throughout the short from the credits, to the backstory, to the song.  The song itself is catchy and upbeat and I love listening to it over and over.  It’s great that Disney was willing to tackle a shameful era of American history as John is clearly shown to be a slave.  I also like that many of the other railroad workers have red hair and I’m going to assume that’s a nod to the Irish immigrants who were also seen as a servant class at the time.  Yet it does this in a way that’s accessible for a younger audience.

The best thing here though for me is the gorgeous animation.  I love the homage paid to the classic shorts with that heavy outline that was the trademark of the old Xerox style.  And that it also has its own look not just with the quilting motif, but also the backgrounds that seem impressionistic in style.  It gives the short this great contrast of depth and flatness at the same time and looks amazing.  I love when John is pounding his way through the mountain and since it is pitch black everything becomes outlines lit by the struck of his hammers against the rocks.  In a way it reminds me of the chalk drawings done by Mel Shaw.  It’s so different from what Disney normally does, especially now days when traditional animation rarely makes an appearance.  I just wished they’d use it more often, because it offers such visual variety that 3D animation doesn’t really have yet, unless you going to stick hand drawn outlines over top of it ala ‘Paperman’. 

In closing I love this short.  I love the music, I love that they tackled the subject in a sensitive, but not sugar-coated way.  I adore the animation.  The combination of traditional construction Xerox style with the painting style backgrounds is just wonderful.  The contrast of those bright scenes with the dark outline of John working in the mountain is so, so good.  It’s  just wonderful to see such creative work and passion shine through the work.  

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