Song of the South is undoubtedly the most controversial film project ever produced by The Walt Disney Company. The international entertainment juggernaut, standing today as a loud voice in the fight for equality, has done everything it can to scrape the memory of 1946 film from its archives and storied history, going as far as removing what was once the most popular ride at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
However, as time turns and Disney faces its past, many hold onto Song of the South, or Splash Mountain for that matter, as not “racist” or simply part of American history that must be told or remembered. Although that may be true, Disney, as a progressive and forward-thinking company, has included the film and its counterpart log-flume ride, in its cleansing scrubbing of its questionable decision-making over the past 100 years.
“Song of the South” Disney’s Troubled History
The 1946 film seems harmless enough. Through Uncle Remus (James Baskett), a young boy (Bobby Driscoll) who now resides in the American South after separating from his parents, learns valuable lessons through stories about Br’er Rabbit. The film, much like Mary Poppins, uses a unique blend of live-action and animation to bring the stories to life. So, what’s the problem?
Besides the cliche overall appearance and mannerisms of Uncle Remus, a black man living in the South, the stories shared regard Br’er Rabbit, a character symbolizing years and years of ingenious slight by enslaved Americans versus their frequently white adversaries. Many scholars suggest that Br’er Rabbit, in his American representation, portrays witty enslaved people overcoming the adversity caused by their white enslavers.
Song of the South, which relies heavily on African Folklore published by Joel Chandler Harris in the form of stories incorporating “trickster” characters such as Br’er Rabbit, encompasses appropriation and capitalization on one of the worst atrocities committed against human beings in the history of the civilized world. Many of the stories that Harris adapted to his published work, which later informed Disney’s 1946 film, are rooted in folklore and tradition carried over to the Americas during the slave trade.
Although James Baskett would give an amazing performance in the 1946 film based on the writings of Harris, since, it’s been scrubbed from Disney’s archives. In fact, Disney withdrew the title from sale in December of 2001. Although insensitive to the depiction of African Americans by asking James Baskett to use speech equivalent to that you’d expect to hear in slave representation, Song of the South also immorally profited from the dark stories of enslaved people for The Walt Disney Company.
Brer Rabbit at Disney World and Disneyland
Leaving depictions of Uncle Remus aside, Disney decided to take the characters from Song of the South and use them in a once popular attraction for their American-based theme parks. Opening in 1989 at Disneyland in California and in 1992 at Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, Splash Mountain quickly became a fan favorite within Disney Parks.
Accompanied by fantastic animatronics and fun, memorable tunes such as “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” composed by Allie Wrubel for the 1946 film, Splash Mountain offered amazing scenes combined with a fast-faced plunge, all set to the side-splitting stories of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and others.
Although full of laughs and fun, many riders of Splash Mountain have enjoyed the attraction with little to no knowledge of the dark undertones surrounding Brer Rabbit and company. However, as Disney has grown into a progressive, outspoken champion of human rights, the decision was made to remove the current theming of Splash Mountain, leading to the closure of both attractions on each coast.
Since then, work has been underway to retheme the rides, featuring Disney’s only African American princess, Tiana from Princess and the Frog. Soon-to-be Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, Splash Mountain, has physically been removed from Disney Parks in the United States. However, it hasn’t left the hearts of many who feel that removing the attraction is an overreaction by Disney as they attempt to remain favorable in the eyes of their audience.
Although removing the theme of Splash Mountain from US parks, but not Tokyo Disneyland for some reason, seems like it would help to further distance The Walt Disney Company from its checkered past, Song of the South still remains a talking point for many, some of whom believe the film isn’t at all problematic. Some even still support the movie.
Fans are Divided Over “Song of the South”
Interestingly enough, there still is wide debate over Song of the South and Splash Mountain. Although you’ll find fans of the film and ride in support groups all over social media, even some historians have voiced their distaste for Disney’s decision to erase the existence of the movie and attraction from its own timeline.
Disney, in further efforts to remain politically correct, have turned their sights from Uncle Remus to other classic animation projects by adding disclaimers at the beginning of films such as Peter Pan or Dumbo. Also, the studios of The Walt Disney Company have taken a liking to allowing progressive messaging to be sounded proudly and loudly within their recent string of live-action remakes of beloved Disney classics.
In a world that is struggling between who it wants to be and who it used to be, Disney has made the decision to move forward from what it clearly considers to be a past full of regrettable mistakes. Some view this as pandering, while others consider it progress. It leads many of us to consider what to do with Song of the South. How should we view it?
Uncle Remus Walked so Mary Poppins Could Run
History and controversy aside, Song of the South didn’t just pave the way for Splash Mountain. It also was a massive step in the right direction for Walt Disney Animation, who would go on to create amazing projects like Mary Poppins in 1964, which utilized the same techniques of combining live-action shots with animation.
For this reason, Song of the South has earned its place in Disney animation history. However, many hold it in regards that rival Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and its importance to Walt Disney and the future of the company he started. Snow White, often considered to be the holy grail of animation, helped lay the foundation for what The Walt Disney Company would become, and although Uncle Remus and Br’er Rabbit played their part in the years that followed, their overall weight in the company is minuscule compared to Disney’s original animated full-length feature film.
Ultimately, Song of the South was a stain into who many believe Walt Disney to be. Released at a time when slavery had been abolished, there’s zero doubt that the animators, writers, actors, and producers who worked on Song of the South were ton-deaf to the bigotry and persecution that African Americans were still enduring, especially in the southern United States. For this reason, to preserve our idea of Walt Disney, the company, and what’s to come, most feel that it’s best for Song of the South be left behind and forgotten.