Short reflections on Disney Shorts: John Henry

The first short film in the new collection is one that is new to me, though the story itself is quite old.  I remember singing “John Henry” in elementary school music class and learning the story along with other American folk tales like Johnny Appleseed & Paul Bunyan.  Now the story I learned, was very basic in its components: man versus technology.  Man wins, sort of.  Disney takes the rough bones of a story and fleshes it out into something more.

In Disney’s version of “John Henry”, John has a wife, a backstory, and motivation.  He and his railroad building compatriots are working for land and a chance to have a new start.  John Henry is the voice of inspiration that keeps the workers focused on their goals.  When the steam drill arrives to replace the workers (I’m not quite sure how one machine is supposed to replace all the laborers that are building the railroad), John Henry becomes the voice of calm that keeps the workers from rioting.  From that point the short follows the folk tale including the unhappy ending which honestly surprised me a little.

Disney animation has quite a record of changing endings to make them happier.  Cinderella’s step-family doesn’t get mutilated.  The little mermaid doesn’t die.  Rapunzel’s true love isn’t blinded.  The list goes on.  They did not, however change the ending of John Henry’s story.  He sacrifices himself for the good of the group.

The change that Disney does make is John’s motivation.  Instead of a man who needs to prove his own worth against a machine, John Henry is a hero of the people.  His story is of a man who gives of himself no matter the cost.  He inspires others and calls them to be the best that they can be.  The short is artistically beautiful, musically interesting, and well written.  I am astonished that this gem has been buried in the Disney catalog for the last 15 years.

This is a story that deserves to be told.  We have few American folk heroes and even fewer African American heroes.  This story, as told by Disney is inspiring.  It resonates on a basic level.  It is what we are taught as Christians is the epitome of love and service.  Disney elevates the folk tale and makes it more than the song I learned as a child.  It becomes a parable that shows us what love can look like.

“No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.”  John 15: 13 CEB

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