A short subject long on anguish 

It's been a bad year for Disney Feature Animation.

"Dinosaur" underperformed at the box office. "Fantasia 2000" had some success in IMAX theaters, but died a dog's death in regular release. And Eisner is said to hate the company's problem-plagued Christmas release, "The Emperor's New Groove."

And then there's the movie that no one dares talk about: "John Henry."

This is a short subject the Mouse has had in the can for more than a year now. Produced at Disney's Florida animation studio, the film celebrates an American folk hero, "that steel-driving man" who wages an epic battle with a steam engine to prove man's superiority over machine. Given the quality of the completed cartoon, many within the company feel it's sure to snag an Oscar nomination.

Yet "John Henry" remains locked away, its release date uncertain.

Disney executives say the reason "John Henry" hasn't been shown in public yet is because it's a very special film. And -- since there isn't much call for animated shorts these days (Disney hasn't produced one since 1995's "Runaway Brain") -- management at the Mouse House is giving careful thought to where and when "John Henry" should make its debut.

But -- off the record -- Disney's animators tell a very different story. They say "John Henry" is still in the can because Disney management is afraid of it. They're worried about what the African-American community will say when they learn that this film about the blackest of folk heroes was produced by a mostly white production team.

This indecision infuriates the animators, who spent more than five years on this project and consider it to be some of their very best work. Moreover, the film's director, Mark Henn -- the lead animator for Belle in 1991's "Beauty and the Beast," Jasmine in 1992's "Aladdin" and the title character in 1998's "Mulan" -- is considered by many to be one of the best animators working today.

Since "John Henry" was Henn's first directorial assignment for the Mouse, he wanted to make sure his production team totally embraced the ethnicity of the piece. Henn arranged field trips to Orlando-area gospel centers so animators could soak up the power and beauty of the culture's music. And he made his artists study 1800s-era story quilts, so the African-American art form also could be folded into the mix.

Indeed, the scuttlebutt around the studio suggests "John Henry" is being held up because Henn did his job too well. He produced a cartoon that is so steeped in African-American culture that it makes the lily-white executives at the Walt Disney Co. uncomfortable.

The Mouse has a somewhat schizo history when it comes to matters of race. Consider the company's attitude toward its 1946 Academy Award-winner, "Song of the South." This film's central character -- Uncle Remus -- is considered so offensive to modern African Americans that studio head Peter Schneider recently announced the movie was going on "permanent hiatus" in the United States. (Mind you, "Song of the South" is still readily available on video and DVD in Europe and Asia ... but that's another story.)

Then there's the studio's problem with the film's finale. Director Henn did what many at Disney Feature Animation consider a very brave thing: He didn't change the ending of the story. Just like in the legend, John Henry dies -- by Disney standards, pretty ballsy storytelling. The downside is that the short subject leaves audiences in tears ... which makes John Henry a lousy lead-in to either of the more upbeat family films the studio is releasing later this year, "102 Dalmatians" and "The Emperor's New Groove."

So when -- if ever -- will the public get to see "John Henry?" Disney executives continue to say they're giving the project very careful thought. There was some discussion about it being shown in front of "Fantasia 2000" during that film's release to regular theaters, but that talk went nowhere. More recently, they considered placing the short in front of Disney's upcoming Denzel Washington film, "Remember the Titans." But then someone pointed out that sticking a short subject about a black folk hero onto the front of a film featuring a black star seemed a tad insensitive. Thus, "Remember the Titans" will go solo when it hits theaters this fall.

Henn is said to be gravely disappointed with the way Disney has handled John Henry. He has since left the Florida studio but still works for the Mouse in California, where he's putting his efforts into a new animated project called "Sweating Bullets."

Which is kind of ironic. Because Disney executives have got to be sweating bullets every time they think about what to do with "John Henry."

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