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Western Animation / John Henry and the Inky-Poo

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John Henry and the Inky-Poo is a 1946 animated short film (7 minutes) written and directed by George Pal, using Pal's "Puppetoons" style of stop-motion animation that employed carved wooden puppets.

It is based on the legend of John Henry "the steel-drivin' man", a black laborer who pounded hammers on the railroad in the post-bellum American South. In this version of the story John Henry is not just the world's greatest swinger of hammers but a mythical giant rather reminiscent of Paul Bunyan. When a mechanical steel-driving machine threatens to put all the railroad laborers out of work, John Henry sets out to beat the machine in a race. He does, pounding rail spikes faster than the machine and crossing the finish line first, but he collapses and dies immediately afterward.

Compare "Tulips Shall Grow", another highly regarded Pal short.

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Tropes:

  • Bittersweet Ending: John Henry wins his race, only to die.
  • Born as an Adult: Not just an adult, but a 12-foot-tall giant. The story opens with John Henry's mother apparently in labor, but after a clap of thunder and lightning, John Henry appears full-sized, and greets his mother with "My name's John Henry, woman!"
  • Drop the Hammer: John Henry wields some enormous hammers to drive home railroad spikes.
  • Dual Wielding: John Henry swings away with one hammer in each hand.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: It's raining in the aftermath of John Henry's death.
  • Man Versus Machine: One of the most famous instances of this trope, as John Henry competes against the steam hammer and wins, only to die at the end of the race.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The John Henry legends may or may not have been based on a real person who engaged in a race against a steam-driven power hammer, but in any case, John Henry is usually presented as a regular human being, who had a wife. As noted above, this cartoon presents him as a supernatural giant, Paul Bunyan style. Additionally, while most versions of the legend have John Henry hammering drills into rock in order to blast with explosives, this cartoon has him hammering railroad spikes.
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  • Pyrrhic Victory: Really, it probably would have been better for John Henry to have found something else to do with those muscles.
  • Stop Motion: Pal's "Puppetoons" animation that involved posing intricately carved wood puppets.
  • Super Strength: Holy crap, John Henry sure can swing a hammer.
  • Villainy-Free Villain: The Inky-Poo, with the only threat it poses being robbing the local workers of their jobs, due to it being able to easily hammer down railroad spikes at a fast speed.
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