Song of the South is the forbidden Disney fruit and I took a bite

If you’re a member of the younger generations out there and you’ve been to Disneyland on either coast, you probably know about Splash Mountain, but next to nothing about the movie that it’s based on.

Disney, you see, has been trying to bury this animated classic for years… Song of the South, the story of an ex-slave named Uncle Remus telling tales of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear to the child of the plantation owner… because, for some reason, Uncle Remus didn’t nope right on out of there when the Emancipation Proclamation was ratified.

That’s the rub of Song of the South: It’s reviled for creating this romanticized and patently false narrative that ex-slaves were only too happy to stick around the plantations because they loved their masters and children which is, admittedly, extremely off-putting. Moreso when you realize that Song of the South was released during a time period when, potentially, many of those ex-slaves might still be alive… and, at the very least, the children of those ex-slaves would be. It’s an extremely uncomfortable situation for Disney given the fact that this movie is still fondly remembered, “Zippity-Doo-Dah” is still a well-known song, and Disney built an extremely popular theme park ride out of the IP which makes a lot of sense when Disney has been trying to pretend this movie doesn’t even exist.

In case you’re unaware – or just confused by the fact that Song of the South has been cut to pieces by the Disney Channel over the last few years so that they can run the nice, clean, and inoffensive cartoon segments – Song of the South is about a family separated after The Civil War.  The father has written some controversial editorials in the Atlanta newspaper and, until things blow over, he’s decided to stash his wife and seven-year-old son, Johnny, at his grandmother’s plantation.  Johnny is, of course, rather upset with being separated from his dad but all of that melts away when he meets a kind-hearted old man named Uncle Remus who tells him stories about Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear – which are told in animated sequences.

Now, when you look at this movie by itself without any of the historical context… Yeah, it’s still very cringey. The kowtowing of the ex-slaves in this movie smacks of the shortcomings of the time and the revisionist history that was being passed off in the form of children’s entertainment.

Okay, it is impossible to talk about this movie without the spectre of the racism that hangs over it. Simply impossible. Song of the South is, at its heart, an unfortunate product of its time which is sad because, honestly, I don’t think it ever intended to be. It’s like the sweet old lady who occasionally says the n-word in casual conversation. Her sixty-year old daughter apologizes profusely for her and you just kind of shrug and accept that her attitude isn’t evil, it’s just a product of the time she was raised in.

It’s the same with Song of the South… it’s not evil, it didn’t set out to be propaganda, and it didn’t begin its life in a dark room filled with supervillains, it’s simply a very unfortunate product of its time and Disney can do nothing at this point but apologize for it and quietly put it in a retirement home.

It’s unfortunate, because Song of of the South could have been better than it was even without changing the bear context of the story. Uncle Remus could have been a forgiving soul, a man pained by his past experiences and who, by befriending the son of his former master, could have put some of his anger and resentment behind him. The boy, in the meantime, could have learned a hard lesson about where his family fortune came from.

But, that didn’t happen. Perhaps, if Disney is serious about righting the wrongs of this movie and they haven’t been discouraged from making remakes, they can redo Song of the South with more commitment to sensitivity and accuracy…

…but I doubt it.

All right, so… taking the titanic mission of overlooking the racism of this movie, how is the movie itself?

Honestly, it’s… not that good.

The live-action segments of the movie are slow and plodding, dragging down the forward progression of the story at every turn. The overly musical nature of the movie where instrumentals are playing during every single second in the background shows that Disney really had little idea of how to handle live-action making it all seem overly saccharine and lacking any genuineness. It looks fake, feels fake… I know it’s a movie, but all movies should have the ability to replicate at least a smidgeon of reality on the screen. None of this movie seems real.

The true diamond in the rough is James Baskett as Uncle Remus who brings immeasurable charm to the role. He makes Remus such a sweet soul and the true tragedy of this movie is that so much of his performance will never be seen by modern audiences.

A lot less tragically is that the terrible performances of the child actors will be lost forever as well. I usually don’t come down hard on child performances, but Bobby Driscoll was was unbelievably awful in this film and so much of it relies on him being relatable and likeable and he just blows it every chance he gets.

The animated segments are a lot of fun and I can see why Disney has decided to retain these characters despite the unfortunate circumstances that led to their births. Br’er Rabbit is clever and spirited and the due of Br’er Fox and Bear are a fun foil for him.

Of course, I really have to look deeper into these characters and ruin things, so part of me wonders if the lesson that we learn from Brer Rabbit has a dubious double meaning.

Br’er Rabbit, you see, wants to leave his home and see the world. Fox and Bear want to stop him and, after the (extremely unfortunate) tar baby scene and the rabbit escaping into the briar patch, Brer Rabbit decides that home is the best place for him and that he was foolish for ever wanting to leave.

Wait… is this…?

Is this Song of the South‘s analogy for the ex-slaves on the plantation? Don’t leave because it’s scary and dangerous out there, stay here where you’re safe?

Oh my gosh…

Now, it’s not easy to find of copy of this movie if you’re in the United States because Disney quietly retired this film after its 40th anniversary in 1986.  Nowadays, the only place you can get it is overseas or on-line.  I guess this movie is too controversial to release on DVD, but not too controversial to make into a theme park ride.

Not that I’m being sarcastic… Splash Mountain rocks on both coasts.

This movie? Not so much. It’s slow, uncomfortable to watch, and smacks of historical revisionism. The animated sequences are fine, the live-action sequences bring the movie to a screeching halt.

Personally, I don’t think that Disney is doing the world a tremendous disservice leaving this movie buried in the vault. I’ve never been one for political correctness run amok, but there is a difference between being politically correct and doing the right thing…

Leaving this movie buried is the right thing.

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