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Director: Various
Cast: Various

MPAA: Not Rated

Presentation: Standard 1.33:1
Audio: English Dolby Surround 2.0
Subtitles: English; Closed-captioned

Runtime: 58 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 2/12/2002.

• "American Legends: A Learning Adventure"
• Walt Disney's TV Intoduction to "Johnny Appleseed"
• DVD-ROM Weblinks

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American Legends (2002)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Released just in time for President’s Day, Disney produced a compilation of shorts that tout American Legends. However, you’ll find no one like Honest Abe or other purely factual figures. Instead, this feature includes stories of legends in the more fictional sense, as we learn about some characters who star in famous “tall tales”.

Hosted by James Earl Jones, the show focuses upon four different figures. It starts with John Henry in the only new short of the bunch. Legends marks the home video debuted of “Henry”, a film that seemed orphaned for a while. It tells the tale of the African-American former slave (voiced by Geoffrey Jones) whose wife Polly (Alfre Woodard) builds him a hammer out of his chains. A remarkable physical specimen, John uses the implement to become the driving force behind the building of railroad tracks.

Controversy emerges when a newfangled steam drill arrives to replace the rail workers. To save their jobs - and prove the superiority of man against machine - Henry challenges the device to a contest to see who can lay more rails within a certain period of time. That contest takes up a significant portion of the short.

Overall, “Henry” is a pretty mediocre short. In many stylistic ways, it feels like a spin-off from 1997’s theatrical release Hercules. Both the musical style and the artwork reminded me a lot of that flick. The short offers a watchable experience but it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself.

It doesn’t help that it looks like an unfinished piece of work. As I’ll discuss more fully during my comments on picture quality, the filmmakers behind “John Henry” gave it a messy appearance. The animation looks sloppy and messy, and the whole piece feels half-hearted; it just seems like the animators gave up on it toward the end and didn’t bother to wrap up the process. From what I’ve read, this effect was actually intentional, but it doesn’t help.

The other four shorts offer completed work, as they all come from prior theatrical releases. The first - and oldest - actually offers an excerpt from the 1948 compilation film Melody Time. I always thought “Johnny Appleseed” was one of that flick’s weaker segments, and seeing it here doesn’t change my mind. We watch the planting fool spread his seed across the United States in this musical adventure.

Sung and voice-acted totally by period star Dennis Day, the short has some cute moments; I especially liked the scene in which Appleseed charms the forest animals. However, otherwise the short is long on piousness and short on fun. It’s a reasonably well-executed piece but it feels a little long and too heavy on Bible-thumping; those elements weren’t extreme, but they seemed odd within the context of this sort of project.

The remaining two shorts provide more entertaining work. From 1958, “Paul Bunyan” gives us the only truly fantasy-oriented piece of the four. While the other three clearly stretch reality in some ways, “Bunyan” tells a totally unrealistic tale. We see Bunyan’s life from the very start, as the giant baby washes up on the shores of a town. The whole burg adopts him and tries to raise the enormous child.

Eventually Paul (voiced by Thurl “Tony the Tiger” Ravenscroft) gets a big axe and becomes an accomplished tree-cutter. He lives life large and ultimately heads west to do his thing. We watch as he meets and befriends Babe the Blue Ox. They romp across the US and allegedly create lots of natural wonders - like Pike’s Peak - due to their shenanigans.

As with “John Henry”, “Bunyan” climaxes with a contest. Another slick dude comes along with a machine that will expedite logging, and Paul challenges him to prove that man can beat machine. That segment caps the short.

As I mentioned, “Bunyan” offers the most broadly fantastic tale of the four, and it’s also probably the most fun. Some of the antics induce groan-worthy laughs, but at least it encourages chuckles nonetheless. Paul’s trek means a greater sense of variety than we see in the others, which allows it to be livelier and more energetic.

Lastly, “The Brave Engineer” tells the story of famed train engineer Casey Jones who establishes himself as the best and most dedicated mail deliverer of them all. This short seems a bit more formless than the others, as it mainly concentrates on Jones’ refusal to acknowledge defeat in the face of adverse elements. We don’t see the “man vs. machine” aspect evident in “Bunyan” and “Henry”, but there’s still that theme of human spirit and indomitability.

Entertainment-wise, “Engineer” offers a decent but unspectacular piece of work. While I definitely liked it more than “Appleseed”, it’s somewhat generic and bland. Casey seems like the worst developed character of the bunch, and the short becomes entertaining mainly due to some wild antics. I wouldn’t call it a memorable clip; for what it offers, the piece provides some fun, but it appears fairly forgettable.

James Earl Jones’ introductions provide short lead-ins for each of the shorts. They give us a little historical perspective but don’t really offer much; they seem to be there mainly to add a little star credibility to the project.

And Disney’s American Legends needs that sort of support. Frankly, this is a pretty cheesy package. From the messy nature of “John Henry” to the scattershot quality of the other three, Legends feels like it was created as a repository for the orphaned “Henry”; Disney seemed to want some way to get rid of it, so they cobbled together this set around it. Short and mediocre, Legends includes some decent material, but it’s a weak package as a whole.

The DVD Grades: Picture B- / Audio C+ / Bonus D-

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.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.8333 Stars Number of Votes: 6
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