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|Kevin Krock, editor|
Designed as a sort of contemporary version of the old Disneyland television show, Four Fabulous Characters, this new compilation hosted by James Earl Jones presents four animated shorts staring classic American folk heroes. In this version, the show introduces one new short and revives three classics, including two from the original TV show.
The first short, “John Henry,” is an interesting adaptation of the story about the African-American hammer-wielding hero. The short was originally released in a limited theatrical run in 2000, but for various reasons, Disney has been holding onto this treat while looking for the right way to present it. With this DVD, Disney has finally found a way.
The simple and raw animation style of a strong hand-penciled look is a bit different from most Disney features, including residual facial and body sketch lines. Also atypical of Disney shorts is the somewhat sad yet touching end, which actually remains true to the original story. Overall, it is refreshingly different and bold.
The other three classic stories, “Paul Bunyan” (1958), “Johnny Appleseed” (1955), and “The Brave Engineer” (1950) have all appeared in a variety of previous Disney releases, with the latter two appearing in the Four Fabulous Characters TV show. “Johnny Appleseed” is also available on DVD on the Melody Time DVD.
As for the subject matter, the first short is about Paul Bunyan, the legendary giant lumberjack who cleared the forests for the American settlers. The second short is the tale of Johnny Appleseed and his quest to plant apple trees across America to benefit the early pioneers. The final short is about Casey Jones, the brave American railroad engineer who delivered the U.S. mail in record time.
Considering the cost of the disc and the limited bonus features, it would have been nice to see a couple more of Disney’s shorts featuring other American legends. Although these four shorts are nice to have on DVD as a package, they probably could have easily included shorts such as “Casey at the Bat,” “Pecos Bill,” “Ben and Me,” or “Casey Bats Again,” even though the first two are already available on package-feature DVDs, like Melody Time. I simply think it would have been a more solid, well-rounded release with those other shorts. Maybe in a couple years we will get a special edition or a Walt Disney Treasures set to cover all of them. I can always wish, can’t I?
As I mentioned, the goodies on this disc are quite minimal, reminiscent of the earliest Disney DVD releases. The James Earl Jones introductions are concise and informative, but I would not consider them as a bonus feature. Therefore, the total extent of goodies is a set-top game and the original Walt Disney introduction to Johnny Appleseed. If you keep in mind that the retail cost of this disc is the same amount as the Peter Pan Special Edition, with a commentary, still galleries, featurettes, and so on, it would have been nice for Disney to include a couple other classic animated shorts staring Mickey or Donald. Better yet, they could have filled it in with the other shorts I mentioned above.
The Video, Audio and Interface
The video varies a bit depending on the age of the short. “John Henry” looks fantastic, with saturated colors and a flawless transfer, but the other three shorts show their age a little. While the prints used in the transfer look to be in pretty good shape for shorts approaching 50 years old, they do not appear to be restored in any way. There are occasional scratches and dust marks, but they were not overly distracting and the children will most probably not notice at all. Otherwise, the colors are generally bright and solid throughout these three older shorts.
The audio and interface are simple and acceptable, but they are not particularly amazing. The audio is a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 (stereo) mix, which should sound fine on any home theater system, but it will not push the higher end systems at all. As for the interface, all of the menu screens have audio accompaniment, and a couple of them have animation. The structure is very simple, as there is not much on the disc, and anyone in the family should be able to navigate their way around.
The Final Evaluation
While the disc is a bit pricey for what you get, the animated shorts are nice to have on DVD. My son, an avid train fan, insists on watching “The Brave Engineer” over and over, and the disc makes that much easier than VHS.
For most of you, though, a rental ought to be enough to satisfy your curiosity about John Henry and to refresh your memories about the other three classics. It is not a must-have, but it is worth watching at least once.
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