Directed By: Mark Henn
Starring: Alfre Woodard, Geoffrey Jones
Trivia: Director Mark Henn is a collector of antique firearms. The pistol in the film used to start the race is based on one of his own Civil War era pistols
John Henry told his captain
"A man ain't nothin’ but a man
But before I let your drill beat me down
I'll die with a hammer in my hand,
I'll die with a hammer in my hand"
I remember, quite vividly, the above excerpt from "The Ballad of John Henry", a traditional folk song about a powerful railroad worker who gave his life to prove a man was better than a machine (when I was in grade school, we’d listen to recordings of this and other folk tunes, following along with the lyrics that were reprinted in our textbooks). John Henry, a 2000 animated short from the “House of Mouse”, takes the legend of John Henry and puts a Disney spin on it, resulting in a 10-minute movie that makes you smile as its tugging at your heart strings.
With his wife Polly (Alfre Woodard) acting as narrator, we hear the story of John Henry (Geoffrey Jones), a former slave who headed west, hoping to make a life for himself and his young family. Using the hammer his wife forged from the chains that once bound him, John Henry goes to work for the railroad, and soon proves he’s the best there is at driving spikes into the ground.
The railroad initially offered (as payment) 50 acres of land to everyone working on the line, but rescinds the deal when they instead send a brand new steam drill to the site, an invention the company believes will move faster than any man.
Any man, that is, except John Henry.
To win back the land promised to him and his fellow workers, John Henry challenges the drill’s engineer to a spike-driving contest. Convinced he's better than any machine, John puts every ounce of energy into winning this contest, and pays the ultimate price for it.
With John Henry, director Mark Henn set out to make a movie similar in tone and spirit to such earlier Disney efforts as Paul Bunyan, a 1958 short about another legendary hero. What’s more, the music in John Henry, a combination of folk and gospel, fits the story perfectly, taking what is ultimately a sad tale and giving it a vibrancy all its own. With the always-engaging Alfre Woodard guiding us along, the film breathes new life into a classic American folktale, and even though I knew how it was going to end, I still got a bit choked up during the movie’s dramatic finale.
Colorful and exhilarating, John Henry is a rousing, life-affirming musical adventure the likes of which only Disney can produce.