A Year in Shorts Day 285: "John Henry and the Inky-Poo"

Way back in January, we covered a 1974 short entitled The Legend of John Henry. Now that short certainly has its fans, but I was not one of them. Just about every stylistic choice made in that film was one that I found incredibly aggravating, and I simply couldn’t get into it. Which is a shame, because I really do like American tall tales, and it shouldn’t be that hard to make a good movie about them. So the question of the day is- did George Pal manage to do that with his 1946 short John Henry and the Inky-Poo? Well, I don’t have high hopes for that, but you never know!


(via TV Tropes)


As you can guess from the title, John Henry and the Inky-Poo retells the story of John Henry, and as you can guess from the director, it's another one of George Pal's Puppetoons. I'm never really quite sure how I feel about these shorts. And, unfortunately, I'm not quite sure how I feel about this one. You see, every film in our Year in Shorts has been one that I've seen before, and this is no exception. But as you can imagine, I don't remember all 365 shorts in vivid detail, so I like to rewatch them before writing a post. But sadly, whatever site hosted the version of this film I'd seen before seems to have taken it down, and I can't find anything more than an excerpt. This is an issue that often comes up when I try to watch a Puppetoon, especially his ones based on Dr. Seuss books. (I will see The 5,000 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins one day, damn it!) I know that I didn't like this short when I first saw it, but now that I have some more context I feel like I might appreciate it slightly more. Or perhaps I wouldn't. Who's to say? I certainly can't. A part of me feels guilty about how lackluster today's post is shaping up to be, but a larger part of me says Fuck it! I'm on vacation! And really, isn't the real culprit the ridiculousness of copyright law? This short was released seventy-five years ago, for God's sake. It should definitely be in the public domain by now! So if you're disappointed that you didn't get a proper review today, don't blame me- blame the corporations.



Regardless of who you blame for all this, here's what I do remember from the short. John Henry and the Inky-Poo takes some liberties with the original story, changing John Henry from a normal man to a supernatural giant. I can't say I understand the thinking behind that. The whole point of John Henry was that he was a normal man, wasn't it? Turning him into a giant kind of defeats the whole purpose of the story, doesn't it? He's not Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, you know? I also know that, like all of George Pal's Puppetoons, the animation is undeniably impressive and also incredibly creepy. I know that on a technical level it's amazing what George Pal could do with wooden puppets, but I also know that on a visual level it nevertheless often comes across as stiff and awkward. But, on a far more positive note, the short was also very well-received by Black audiences and critics at the time. Prior to this, George Pal had made a series of shorts featuring a character named Jasper, who embodied a great number of African-American stereotypes. (We'll get to one of those shorts eventually.) John Henry and the Inky-Poo, it seems, was made as an attempt to address those issues he'd had in his other shorts. Aside from being directly drawn from Black folklore, Pal insisted on an all-Black cast, which was rare for cartoons in those days. That certainly makes it an interesting and important short. But is it enough to make it a good one? I can't be sure until I get the chance to revisit it, but I'd have to say that it isn't for me. As much as I love me some stop motion, I must confess that the Puppetoons rarely do much for me, especially the ones featuring human characters. So in spite of all the good things it has going for it, I can't say that John Henry and the Inky-Poo would do much to make it any different. But of course, there's currently no way to know for sure.


Keep up with the Oscar Baiting here on Letterboxd!


The Great Oscar Baiter is a not-for-profit work of criticism. All images herein are property of their respective owners and are protected under Fair Use.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Year in Shorts Day 286: "Detouring America"

A Year in Shorts Day 359: "The Sandman"

A Year in Shorts Day 297: "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore"