RELEASE DATE: Wednesday 20th November 1946
Disney's most controversial film...? Infamous or not, there's no denying that Song of the South is a movie beloved by Disney fans all over the world. And yet, Disney wants to bury it. It's like they want to pretend it never happened, regardless of the ever-popular "Splash Mountain" ride at Disneyland parks all over the world, a ride that is 100% inspired by this movie! In 2010 Bog Iger reiterated that Disney had no plans to release the film on D.V.D. or Blu-Ray, because it was "antiquated" and "fairly offensive."
So watching an old V.H.S. copy of the movie is not only a trip down memory lane, it's a chance to ask the big questions. Why is this movie considered offensive? Why do people get so upset about it? How much of a big deal would it be for Disney to give the long-suffering fans what they want...?
Song of the South takes place in the 1870s. The Civil War has ended and slavery has been abolished. On a plantation near Atlanta, a young boy and his mother are coming to stay with their relatives who own the ranch.
The boy - Johnny - was played by a great little actor called Bobby Driscoll. He would continue on to be a star of the Disney studios, playing the lead role in Treasure Island and providing the voice for the title character in Peter Pan. His later life however is horribly tragic. After developing a fierce drug dependency, Driscoll was found dead in a New York alley, his body not even properly identified until two years after his death.
Playing the cook Aunt Tempy was Hattie McDaniel, historically known as the first African-American to win an Academy Award for her role as Mammy in Gone With The Wind.
Johnny and his mother are left on the plantation while his father leaves for work in Atlanta. The only thing that Johnny is interested in doing at this new home is meeting the fabled Uncle Remus, a gifted storyteller, who had been telling his famous tales for generations.
Uncle Remus was played by James Baskett, whose presence is one of the most memorable aspects of this film. No sooner has Uncle Remus met the new little boy than be tells him a story. "It happened on one of dem Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah days." The following song, of course, went on to win an Academy Award and is still sung all over the world.
Uncle Remus tells animal fables. His main protagonist is Brer Rabbit. ("Brer" is a slang term for "brother.")
Brer Rabbit is constantly being pursued by the greedy and fast-talking Brer Fox and the enormous and dim-witted Brer Bear.
These animated sequences, which only make up about a third of the movie, are entertaining and clever, with great use of merging a real life actor (Baskett) with the animated characters. There are three stories that Uncle Remus tells throughout the movie, and each one has a moral for the children to take away with them.
Back in the real world, Johnny has made a good friend by the name of Toby. They go on adventures together, catching frogs and generally being little boys.
But they soon come across a little girl their age called Ginny, who is being bullied by her two older brothers. She has a new puppy that her brothers threaten to drown, so she gives the puppy to Johnny for safety.
Johnny's mother refuses to let him keep the dog however, so Johnny appeals to Uncle Remus... Could HE keep the puppy so that it would be safe from the nasty boys?
Uncle Remus tells Johnny a story about a time when Brer Rabbit was sticking his nose where it didn't belong, and he ended up being caught covered in tar. Fortunely, Brer Rabbit was clever and a persuasive talker, and with some reverse psychology managed to outsmart Brer Fox and Brer Bear once again.
Johnny's mother becomes increasingly unhappy with Uncle Remus, and asks that he no longer tell his stories to her son. Eventually she tells him to stay right away from Johnny.
Heartbroken, Uncle Remus packs his things and heads off for Atlanta. Seeing him leave, Johnny races through the bull's paddock to try and catch him, and gets attacked by the bull. As he lies in his bed slipping in and out of consciousness, it is only the voice of Uncle Remus that restores him back to health.
Okay... Can of worms... Do you think this film is racist?
I think there are a number of different issues regarding Uncle Remus. There was apparently already a lot of angst amongst the African-American community because these famous books, narrated by an old black man, were actually written by a white guy, Joel Chandler Harris. He spent a lot of his years around Georgian plantations, and since he had heard a whole lot of stories from the slaves at the time, he wrote them down and published them. I can understand how that might sting, especially so soon after the Civil War.
But I get frustrated with how sensitive people get, because the stories are good. The movie is good. It deserves to be seen! All Disney needs to do is get a famous African-American actor like Whoopi Goldberg or Jamie Foxx to film a spiel to be played at the start of the movie explaining to the children that this is set a long time ago, and some of the values and portrayals might not be seen as particularly "P.C." now. They did that exact thing for some of the Disney Treasures D.V.D., I don't understand why they couldn't do it here as well. Okay. Rant over.
So what about the funny parts of the movie?
SHENZI: The look on Johnny's face when his parents kiss is priceless!
HAKU: The integration of live-action and animation was really good for the day.
I think what I love so much about Song of the South, especially coming from Walt Disney himself, is that it's like a celebration of the art of storytelling. Walt himself was a master storyteller. And it's like there's traditions passed on generation to generation, the talent of spinning a yarn that might just seem like mere entertainment, but has a message and life lesson embedded in it.
But just think, there's now like a whole generation of kids who've never seen this movie because it just hasn't been available. They never show it on T.V., and it's never got a D.V.D. release. These kids must get very confused when they go on Splash Mountain. It's a Disney classic that needs a resurrection.