American Legends appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Note that the DVD states the disc is dual-layered, but I think this was a mistake; I saw no evidence of that status. Despite the mix of ages found in the material, overall the picture looked fairly good; some problems appeared, but in general the image seemed quite satisfying.
Surprisingly, although it was the newest clip, “John Henry” didn’t offer the strongest picture. However, that wasn’t due to the transfer; it came from the seemingly unfinished status of the short itself. It looks like no one bothered to complete “Henry”, as it showed the crummiest cleanup work I’ve ever seen in an allegedly finished product. As I noted earlier, apparently this look was intentional, but the sketchiness appeared in a strange manner. The level of messiness was erratic, as some scenes showed many more stray lines than others. I’ve read enough to accept that Disney made “Henry” look this way on purpose, but I still find it hard to believe they’d want one of their films to show such poor quality.
Otherwise, “Henry” looked quite good. Despite the sketchiness, sharpness seemed reasonably crisp and distinct, with no signs of softness. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, and I saw no signs of edge enhancement. Other than the stray pencil lines, print flaws looked absent; I witnessed no speckles, scratches, grit, or other defects.
Colors seemed nicely rich and vivid. The short went with a solid golden tone much of the time, and the other hues were distinct and vibrant at all times. Black levels also seemed deep and dense, while shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. Ultimately, “John Henry” offered a solid image - it simply looked unfinished, as if no one bothered to clean up the product before they slapped it on this disc.
All of the other shorts were completed, and they presented fairly similar images. For all three, sharpness consistently seemed nicely crisp and detailed, with very few instances of softness. Jagged edges, moiré effects and edge enhancement also presented no problems. The oldest of the bunch, “Johnny Appleseed” showed the highest level of flaws, as it included a moderate level of speckles, dust, and a little general debris. However, it remained quite clean for such an old piece of work; it didn’t look as fresh as some other Disney works from the era, but when compared to the vast majority of films from the Forties, it presented a solid image.
As for the other two, they weren’t spotless, but they also seemed quite positive for older material. Light dust and some speckles occurred, but otherwise the cartoons appears nicely clean. Disney kept their animated material in very good shape, and that fact was reflected in the fairly high quality of these shorts.
In other ways, the three older clips demonstrated good quality. Colors looked bright and vibrant, as they showed the usual broad palettes typical of Disney material. The hues were consistently clear and distinct, and they showed no signs of noise, bleeding, or other concerns. Black levels appeared dark and intense, while shadow detailed stayed appropriately opaque and natural. Again, the three older shorts demonstrated a few signs of age, but they looked quite positive as a whole.
Excepting the seemingly unfinished nature of “John Henry”, the only moderately poor quality found on Legends came from the James Earl Jones material. Those live-action shots looked surprisingly flat and muddy. The segments appeared somewhat soft and fuzzy, and they came across as a bit blocky much of the time. Colors seemed dense and too heavy as well. Some jagged edges showed up in the bland and somewhat murky shots. Because the cartoons looked so good, the overall presentation earned a “B”, but it was an inconsistent package.
Due to the differing ages of the material, the audio of American Legends also showed varying quality in this Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack. The newly created elements featured the greatest breadth. Jones’ introductions displayed speech from the center channel but music and effects emanated from the sides. The latter offered decent environmental ambience but remained quite subdued; these segments focused on speech, so music and effects were a minor aspect of the sound.
As for “John Henry”, it provided reasonably good breadth for music and effects. Actually, the latter stayed centered for the most part, but they spread fairly well to the side channels. The music displayed the strongest imagery, as the stereo presentation seemed to be pretty distinct and well delineated. Surround usage was general in nature. The rear speakers showed decent reinforcement of the music but didn’t do much else; this was a pretty forward-oriented track as a whole.
In regard to quality of the newer elements, the music and effects for the Jones introductions sounded fairly rich and vivid. However, the speech - the most dominant element of these segments - appeared a bit thick and showed some moderate edginess. Jones’ lines were always intelligible but they lacked the naturalness that I’d expect of brand-new footage.
”John Henry” demonstrated no noticeable concerns. The speech was crisp and distinct, and effects appeared vivid and dynamic, with reasonably solid low-end response; bass was a little boomy and indistinct but still decent. Music also displayed nice range and accuracy, as the songs sounded clear and rich. Overall, this material was the strongest portion of the soundtrack.
The other three shorts offered monaural audio that generally seemed adequate based on the age of the material. Not surprisingly, the oldest clip - “Johnny Appleseed” - demonstrated the weakest sound. Speech and singing appeared somewhat thin and edgy, while the music was similarly tinny; the songs and score came across as a bit too bright and lacked any noticeable depth. Some light hiss was noticeable as well. For 50+-year-old recordings, “Appleseed” sounded fine, but it still offered the weakest audio of the bunch.
“Paul Bunyan” displayed distinct improvements. It showed quite positive mono sound, with good clarity and accuracy. Bass response was still marginal for the most part, though the track actually awoke my subwoofer on a few occasions, such as for the thumps when Babe and Bunyan played together. Ultimately, it was an unspectacular mono mix but it seemed more than acceptable.
The track for “The Brave Engineer” fell somewhere between “Bunyan” and “Appleseed” in terms of quality. Speech came across as slightly brittle, and the audio showed some light hiss, but the material still sounded noticeably stronger than “Appleseed”. It appeared fairly clear and distinct as a whole; the hiss was probably the most annoying concern. Ultimately, the soundtrack to American Legends was erratic due to the variety of sources, but it still seemed generally positive.
In regard to extras, American Legends skimps badly. The prime attraction offers Walt Disney’s TV introduction for “Johnny Appleseed. From a September 18, 1957 broadcast, this 55-second clip doesn’t offer any real information, but it’s mildly fun for archival purposes.
In addition, we get American Legends: A Learning Adventure, a tiresome game. This contest apparently follows the four shorts on the DVD; I have to say “apparently” because I gave up on it during the second one. It starts with “Paul Bunyan”, which offers a very simple trivia contest. After that, we move to a “John Henry” inspired guessing game. Disney love their tedious trial and error games, and this one got old exceedingly quickly. I didn’t feel like spending much time stabbing in the dark, so I called it a night. If you’re masochistic, though, be sure to give “A Learning Adventure” a look, but the only thing you’ll learn is how annoying this game is.
When you start the DVD, you’ll find ads for some other Disney flicks. There’s a promo for the hotly anticipated DVD video release of Beauty and the Beast. The trailer highlights the inclusion of “Human Again”, the song added for the IMAX theatrical release of Beauty. In addition, the DVD opens with promos for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. These clips also can be found in the Sneak Peeks area alongside additional ads for Schoolhouse Rock, 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure, and Disney DVD as a whole.
Finally, Disc One includes some DVD-ROM content, but not much. All we find are some Weblinks. You can “register” your DVD, which then qualifies you for Disney’s disc replacement program. You can also enter a sweepstakes - when they offer one, that is, for currently (February 14, 2002) they’re running none. This section offers connections to “Disney’s Movie Finder” - a page that offers information about pretty much every Disney flick ever - as well as go to the Disney DVD site. It’s a pretty blah collection of links.
Disney can be the most maddening studio in regard to DVD. On one hand, they’ve recently produced some amazing pieces of work, and this is represented by the treatment of their classic shorts. The “Walt Disney Treasures” collections provided beautiful treatment of Mickey Mouse In Living Color and the Silly Symphonies; those sets offered hours of terrific entertainment.
Then we get American Legends, one of the shoddiest pieces released by the studio. For Disney fans, the biggest attraction is “John Henry”, a recent short that it looks like no one bothered to finish. A bland piece of work anyway, the apparently intentional lack of cleanup work done on it makes it even less interesting. The other three shorts fare better - at least they were completed - but none of them are particularly special. Fans will already own “Johnny Appleseed” via Melody Time, so that leaves the good “Paul Bunyan” and the mediocre “The Brave Engineer” as the only other new attractions.
Quality seems good. The picture looks solid across the board. Except for the sloppiness of “John Henry”, it provides a positive image, and the other three show some age-related flaws but still appear very good for their age. Audio is also erratic but acceptable. Unfortunately, the set includes almost no extras.
With a list price of $29.99, American Legends insults diehard Disney fans. They’ll likely want to own it to have a look at “John Henry” and to have their own copies of “The Brave Engineer” and “Paul Bunyan”, but $30 is awfully steep for only about 45 minutes of new material with insubstantial supplements. The seemingly unfinished nature of “Henry” compounds these flaws. American Legends is a shoddy package that would be more acceptable with a retail cost of $15, but at twice that price, it’s a rip-off that should be avoided by anyone other than the most desperate Disney fans.