American Legends

Movie review by
Joly Herman, Common Sense Media
American Legends Movie Poster Image
Folklore cartoons are more entertaining than educational.
  • G
  • 2002
  • 58 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

James Earl Jones's narration provides the framework for these tales. He gives true historic background for the cartoons, though the cartoons themselves tend to dwell less on fact and more on folklore.

Positive Messages

John Henry fought for the land of his fellow workers, though his efforts result in his death. Johnny Appleseed does good deeds.

Positive Role Models & Representations

John Henry is introduced as a true "African-American role model." In fact, all of these characters model leadership and perseverance, though some of them make better choices than others. Paul Bunyan, for example, gets so angry that he threatens and fights.

Violence & Scariness

Some cartoon violence, including an ox punching Paul Bunyan in the mouth, while Paul throws the ox around -- "roughhousing" as the narrator calls it. Some perilous moments when Casey Jones's train nearly runs over a woman on the tracks. Themes of loss include the death of John Henry and the passing of Johnny Appleseed, though they are both celebrated after they pass.

Consumerism

Disney previews lay it on thick for Disney products.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that though the first cartoon about John Henry is a more inclusive look at an African-American hero, the other three cartoons are much more dated -- and less educational -- retellings of American legends. The Johnny Appleseed cartoon features a song about the Lord and a Bible that accompanies Johnny wherever he goes.

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What's the story?

James Earl Jones, venerable African-American actor, gives historical context for the four Disney cartoons in this movie. The first, about John Henry, tells a story of a freed slave who uses his strength for the good of his fellow workers. The second tale, which is about Johnny Appleseed, shows a faithful young man whose seeds help plant a nation's fruit trees. The third cartoon is about Paul Bunyan, a larger-than-life lumberjack who frolicked across our nation with an ox named Babe. The last cartoon is about John Luther Jones, also known as Casey Jones, who drove a train engine faster than anyone could reckon.

Is it any good?

The first cartoon about John Henry is beautifully rendered and lovingly told, and creates a touching tribute to a soulful man. Though the Johnny Appleseed tale tells of the struggles of a young man in overcoming his fears, it does not possess the soul or depth of the John Henry story. The last two cartoons about Paul Bunyan and Casey Jones are stories of man versus machine, and though they are fun to watch, they are not as interesting or gripping as the first story.

It's amazing to see how Disney has changed its tune to include women and people of color in its storylines. These changes reflect the way our world really is, which provides a more interesting story. These tales could inspire families to get to the library to find more American heroes. We all need inspiration, right?

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the difference between true history and folklore. James Earl Jones mentions in his narrative that most of these legends were passed down through the spoken word. What happens to a story when it is retold over many years?

  • John Henry's wife, Polly, is very active in her husband's decisions and in his life. What about the other females in the other cartoons? How have women's roles changed since pioneer times? How are they the same?

  • As fun as it is to watch cartoons about historical figures, it's also cool to read about them. Here are some ideas about how to get kids reading.

Movie details

Themes & Topics

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For kids who love history

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