Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Harve Foster & Wilfred Jackson
Written by: Dalton S. Reymond, Morton Grant, Maurice Rapf & Bill Peet
(based on the collection of folk tales by Joel Chandler Harris)
Starring: James Baskett, Bobby Driscoll, Luana Patten, Glenn Leedy, Ruth Warrick, Johnny Lee & Nick Stewart
In the vast catalog of Disney films, there’s one title that sticks out as their most controversial: SONG OF THE SOUTH. Though they’ve had no problem re-releasing it twice into theaters (during the 70’s and 80’s), Disney has since taken a stringent effort not to put this movie on home video. Essentially, they’re trying to forget that it ever existed, in spite of Splash Mountain being one of the most (deservedly) popular attractions at Disneyland. I’m not going to spend this whole review ranting and raving about the ethics of whether this film should be released on DVD/Blu-Ray or not, but that’s definitely a point that I will bring up. So does SONG OF THE SOUTH deserve its controversy? Do I have any authority to speak about this as a white guy? Is the film even worth watching?
America has just gotten over the Civil War and little Johnny is visiting his grandmother’s plantation. Though Johnny thought this trip was a vacation, it becomes quite clear that his parents are going through marital troubles. Johnny contemplates running away, but bumps into the kindly old Uncle Remus, a former slave turned sharecropper. Remus tells Johnny a story about a furry scamp named Br’er Rabbit and Johnny becomes accustomed to living on the plantation. He makes friends with a nearby girl and a dispute erupts with her brothers about a puppy they planned on drowning. All the while, Remus teaches Johnny valuable lessons through the tales of Br’er Rabbit. The whole film is a simple family drama with some unfortunate stereotypes and narrative problems.
Might as well address the elephant in the room, SONG OF THE SOUTH is a bit racist and by “a bit racist” I mean that it’s racist. Uncle Remus is clearly an Uncle Tom type of character, though I don’t know whether Joel Chandler Harris intended him as that. There’s also a Mammy stereotype seen in a one-dimensional maid. The biggest slap in the face of racist content is a trap set for Br’er Rabbit involving a literal Tar Baby. This is all pretty uncomfortable in this day and age, but you kind of have to watch SONG OF THE SOUTH through a historical lens. Our society has gotten remarkably better about understanding and tolerance, though we all still have a way to go. SONG OF THE SOUTH never treats its black characters in horrible ways, but rather over simplifies them to the point of being offensive.
The racial stereotypes aren’t the biggest problem with SONG OF THE SOUTH, but rather how corny the movie is at points. This is Disney and they Disneyfied post-Civil War South. That’s to be expected. However, the movie is overly sappy in its final act. It’s appreciated that Johnny is going through the potential divorce of his parents and trying to save a puppy, but the way in which the film wraps up feels like an easy cop-out. The story slightly drags in-between the animated segments (which run for less than a third of the running time) as well. This all being said, there’s an innocence about the whole film that I appreciated. This is early family entertainment after all and it seems like a weird choice for Disney to make this during the mid-1940’s. The film is uplifting (even if it can be forced at points) and seems genuinely happy all the way through. I really liked that cheery atmosphere.
Speaking on pure technical achievements, the integration of animated characters into live-action settings and real-life actors into animated settings are amazing to look at. These sequences are well done and made even more impressive when you consider that Disney hadn’t made MARY POPPINS, BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS or PETE’S DRAGON yet. I don’t know if this was their first take on blending two different mediums, but it was definitely one of their earliest efforts. The cartoon segments themselves are really entertaining and (as I’m sure has been lamented by many people) I wish they took up more of the running time. They add up to about 25 minutes total and that feels a tad underwhelming by the end. Br’er Rabbit essentially feels like Disney’s version of Bugs Bunny, though I’m fully aware that he was a character in folk tales before the creation of this movie. Meanwhile, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear make for imposing, comedic villains. Again, I wish the animated segments were longer just so I could watch these three characters interact a bit more.
Should SONG OF THE SOUTH ever be made available to the point where people don’t have to dig through dusty VHS tapes in obscure collections (a hint to how I watched this film) to find it? Honestly, I think it should. It’s a film of historical significance, even if it’s far from perfect or even a great movie. Being offended over SONG OF THE SOUTH in this day and age amounts to being outraged by UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. Taken in the time period in which they were created, they’re innocent works of art fuelled by good intentions. As a whole, SONG OF THE SOUTH suffers from pacing issues and sappy moments, but it makes up for that in sheer technical prowess and a genuinely cheerful feeling. It also should be mentioned that I find it ironic that Disney tries to bury SONG OF THE SOUTH by not releasing it on DVD, but is perfectly okay with Splash Mountain remaining open at their theme parks. Overall, I recommend SONG OF THE SOUTH on its own merits. Take that as you will.