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Tuesday, June 12, 2012



"Johnny didn't mean no harm. He was just tryin' to be like Br'er Rabbit."
-- Uncle Remus

Song of the South is a 1946 Disney film directed by Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson that blends live action with traditional animation. It tells the story of a young boy named Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) who thinks he's going on vacation to his grandmother's plantation. Once his family arrives, however, he learns that only he and his mother Sally (Ruth Warrick) are staying while his father (Erik Rolf) must return to Atlanta for work. Distraught by his father's sudden departure, Johnny decides to run away and make his way back home to Atlanta. As he tries to leave the plantation, however, he stumbles across an elderly African-American gentleman named Uncle Remus (James Baskett), who is known by all for his comical but enlightening tales. He begins to tell Johnny stories about a time long ago, when real folks and "critters" lived in harmony. Through these stories, Johnny starts to learn valuable life lessons, but his mother isn't terribly keen about Uncle Remus filling Johnny's head with these fanciful stories, beneficial as they may seem.

For years and years, Song of the South has been the seeming black mark on the face of Disney films. Although they've had their share of so-so films in the past, there has been nothing to measure up to the controversy surrounding this particular film. The negative publicity towards Song of the South has reached such an uproar that Disney has refused to release the film on any type of home viewing medium since the film was re-released in theaters in 1986. Since that time, it has been nearly impossible to find any copy of the film (although, sources have informed me that DVD copies of the film are available for purchase in England and Japan; I cannot, however, prove these rumors to be true). In today's day and age, most people's most direct contact with the Song of the South story matter comes from the log flume attraction Splash Mountain, located at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, and Tokyo Disneyland in Japan. For years, I've wanted to see Song of the South to see just how terribly controversial it might be, and today proved to be the opportunity I had always wanted. So let's talk about it, shall we?

The first thing I want to say is this: I loved Song of the South. While I have always been and will always be a bit of a Disney fanatic and shame-lacking apologist, I do have to admit I am a bit biased; however, I do have to say that the film proved to be both entertaining and visually beautiful. I will discuss my opinions about the controversial aspects of this film, but I want to talk about its merits first, if you don't mind.

I think it's best to start with the technical aspects of this film. As one of the first major motion pictures to feature both live-action film and animation, Song of the South can easily be considered groundbreaking. Since this time, the use of both animation and live-action has been utilized on a number of occasions, ranging from tiny snippets here and there to films full-blown with the blend such as 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. However, I do have to say that, despite its old age and early technology, Song of the South provides some of the most seamless animation and live-action blending I've ever seen. On three separate occasions, we delve into a world of animation in which Uncle Remus often times enters himself, and this effect alone is worth praise. However, I was most blown away by the film's finale, in which a number of the animated characters come to life in the live-action sequences. It's so well-done that it'll have you believing they just shot it that way and happened to have some very colorful critters bouncing around on that sunny day. So, kudos to the animators who helped bring this film to life.

The film's screenplay also manages to offer quite a bit of delight. It's a simple tale about a boy struggling with the idea of an absent father, and in his stead, he finds a mentor and friend in Uncle Remus, who proceeds to tell him a number of fanciful stories that are meant both to entertain and to teach. Where the screenplay succeeds, however, is in taking these stories and bringing them into Johnny's everyday life. We as the audience see him learn and adapt his behavior based off these tales, and it's these parallels that bring the screenplay from a "good" one to a "great" one.

The acting in the film is also relatively good, considering the type of film we're receiving. Baskett is great as Uncle Remus, sticking with the character from start to finish (Fun Fact: Baskett also provides the vocal performance for the clever Br'er Fox in his stories). Driscoll is serviceable as our leading child actor, although I can see where some viewers might get a little annoyed by him. The rest of the cast fills out nicely, and it's nice to see Hattie McDaniel, even if she's in a limited role.

One of the best things about the film is the music. It's billed as a musical, so Song of the South has to deliver on that particular front, and it certainly does not disappoint. Now, everybody knows the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," but many won't know that it actually took home the Oscar statuette for Best Original Song in 1947. And fans of the Splash Mountain attractions will recognize songs like "How Do You Do?" and "Everybody's Got a Laughing Place." All in all, the soundtrack proves to be fantastic, and all the songs are catchy and are sure to put a smile on your face.

And now, for the controversy. Opponents of this film have often claimed that Song of the South portrays a prejudiced view of African-Americans. The film takes place in the South during a time when slavery was still legal, so it is safe to assume that each of the black actors in the film is, in fact, a slave on the plantation. At times, this can be difficult to remember because of the relationship between the white and the black characters. In nearly every other film that deals with the subject of slavery in the United States, we see a bigoted Caucasian family hatefully driving work from their African-American slaves, all the while standing high above them. Song of the South instead offers a tale where the two races seemingly stand on equal footing, with everyone generally getting along. And that's where some of the controversy has started. Even in 1946, when the film was first released, these ideas were brought to the forefront. One of the heads of the NAACP at the time wrote that the film "unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts." In addition, it has often been claimed that the performances by the black actors are incredibly stereotypical, and for this, the film has been often criticized.

I stand here now to tell you two things: first, I agree with all of the racial issues I have just mentioned, and second, I'm not sure any of it is really that much of a problem. While I can plainly see where the issues might arise, I think that all of this film's opponents are reaching a tad too far into their over-analysis of the film. Yes, there are definitely some stereotypes tossed around here and there, but I think the fact that Disney took the chance to put the African-American characters on equal footing with the white characters is quite a testament in and of itself. For a film to do that in the 1940s is entirely unheard of, and I think that Disney should be commended for the effort. Disney films have always tried to create ideal cinematic worlds, so why shouldn't one of their first major forays into the live-action genre do the same? There's never a sense of hatred or bigotry in the story's telling, so the fact that so many people read that into the story is a terrible notion. The fact that it's been done so much that Disney simply will not release the film is a tragedy.

At the end of the day, Song of the South is a beautifully-crafted film that proves to be entertaining and engaging. While the stigmas of the controversy are sure to swirl around this film until the end of time, I honestly don't think that it's as bad as all the critics make it out to be. I think there's a lot of fun to be had with this film, and if you can find yourself a copy, do yourself a favor and give it a view.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: B+
Should You Watch It? Yes

1 comment:

  1. I saw this movie as a child in the 1950s and I have fond memories of it, along with ones of actor James Baskett. I'd highly recommend it to anyone.