A black hero comes up short

When Academy Award nominations were announced last week, only two of Walt Disney Studios' 2000 releases were singled out for praise: The Emperor's New Groove, for original song, and 102 Dalmatians, for best costuming.

This depressed a lot of people at the Mouse House. But perhaps none more so than the animators at Disney Feature Animation in Florida. They had hoped their labor of love, "The Legend of John Henry," might get a nomination for Best Animated Short, and thereby at last secure an audience beyond the very few people who've had a chance to see it. Instead, it looks like "John Henry" -- whose black American folk hero is "that steel-driving man" who wages an epic battle with a steam engine to prove man's superiority over machine -- will spend its days hidden away in some film vault.

Disney executives publicly have praised the Disney/MGM Studios artists for their work on the nine-minute film, whose content, soundtrack and conceptual design employing African-American story quilts make for an obvious celebration of black culture. But in private these same suits say they just don't know what to make of the film.

That's why Disney kept "John Henry" -- which was completed in 1999 -- out of release for most of 2000. This didn't sit well with the Florida animation folks, who started a whispering campaign suggesting the Walt Disney Co. was afraid to show "John Henry" due to its overly ethnic look and feel.

When news of this campaign reached Burbank, Disney executives freaked. Ever conscious of their corporate image but still fearful of offending black consumers, the Mouse knew it had to do something. So, last fall, Disney launched what is now being called the "going through the motions" campaign.

The goal of this effort was to do as little as possible to promote "John Henry" while giving the impression the film had the studio's wholehearted support. To this end, Disney announced that, instead of putting the short into wide release tacked onto one of the company's features, it would be shown at prestigious film festivals, with the hope of building some positive buzz.

The problem was that the festivals Disney chose -- second-tier events such as the Foyle Film Festival in Northern Ireland and the Liberi di Volare in Italy -- weren't all that prestigious. "John Henry" made its domestic debut at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, Ind. There, at least, the Heartland board was so impressed that it gave the film's director, veteran Disney animator Mark Henn, its Crystal Heart Award.

The animators used Henn's heart-shaped trophy as well as the warm response "John Henry" received in Indianapolis as proof that their movie deserved a chance to be seen by the general public. "Put 'John Henry' on the big screen where a real audience can see it," they said. "Then you can see for yourself how much people love this movie."

Finally, in late October, Disney begrudgingly gave in -- somewhat. For three days, "The Legend of John Henry" was shown at Hollywood's El Capitan Theater as a bonus feature at screenings of Tim Burton's animated rerelease The Nightmare Before Christmas. But not at every showing, mind you. Just before the 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. performances.

With this sort of tepid support from the studio, is it any wonder that "John Henry's" six screenings in Southern California didn't generate much response? Due to the lack of advertising, most animation fans didn't even learn about this limited, exclusive showing of the short until it was too late.

Disney's obvious lack of faith in the film may even have hurt its chances at the 2000 Annies (the animation industry's equivalent to the Oscars). Although it was nominated for Best Short in the competition whose winners were announced in November, "John Henry" lost out to For the Birds, a deliberately silly CGI film produced by Disney's "Toy Story" partner, Pixar.

But sometimes that's just how it is when you work in show business. You pour your heart and soul into a film, only to have some suit decided it's not worth watching. So your movie's dead in the water even before anyone ever gets to see it.

What really galls "John Henry's" creators, however, is that this past Sunday, Disney staged an elaborate, Hollywood-style premiere for the company's latest direct-to-video project, "Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure." Celebrities such as Andy Garcia, Steven Seagal and Tiffani Amber Thiessen strolled up the red carpet into the El Capitan to see a sequel to a 45-year-old, feature-length animated film starring dogs.

Why does "Tramp II" rate all this hype and John Henry get none? Simple. These direct-to-video sequels are a money-making machine for the Mouse. Last fall's "The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea" has to date earned $121 million for Disney, $37 million more than the original "Mermaid" movie made during its entire original domestic release in 1989. To keep this gravy train rolling, the Mouse House reportedly has a dozen or more direct-to-video sequels in development, including "The Hunchback of Notre Dame II" and "The Lion King III."

So, in spite of what the Mouse may be saying, color did play an important part in the decision to shelve "The Legend of John Henry." But Disney didn't abandon it because the film's hero or storyline was too black. Rather, the Mouse didn't think it would make enough green.

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