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Yep, we’re doing this! As the purpose of this blog is to review every theatrically released live-action Disney film, I couldn’t skip the very first theatrically released live-action Disney film!
No, Treasure Island was the first Disney film to be ENTIRELY live-action! Song of the South was the first Disney film to have any sort of live-action in it!
Ok, technically The Reluctant Dragon and Victory Through Air Power preceded Song of the South, but I’m not reviewing documentaries for this blog and those two films are documentaries or at least have documentary-like elements.
So, for all practical purposes of this blog, Song of the South is the first theatrically released live action Disney film! The film has a reputation for being insensitive/racist, hence it’s never been released in American on home video. Yet, the legacy of the film lives on with the Academy Award-winning song, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, still being sung today and the Disney theme park ride, Splash Mountain, incorporating scenes from the film!
I had seen the film years ago and found it to be more boring than racist myself. Thankfully, I was able to find a streaming version of the film to rewatch for this blog. Do I still find the film boring? Do I find it racist now? Do I find it to be neither? Read on to find out!
And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!
The film takes place in rural Georgia after the Civil War and begins with a family riding in a carriage to a plantation. The family consists of the father, John Sr., played by Erik Rolf, the mother, Sally, played by Ruth Warrick, and their 7-year-old son, Johnny, played by Disney star, Bobby Driscoll.
They’re visiting Johnny’s grandmother, played by Lucile Watson. At first, Johnny is excited about the idea, but when he realizes that his father is leaving his mom and him there for a while and going back to Atlanta to work, Johnny is devastated!
Later that night, Johnny decides to run away to Atlanta to reunite with his father. As he heads in that direction, he passes by many of the African Americans who work on his grandmother’s plantation and hears them singing, laughing, and telling stories after a hard day’s work.
Soon enough, he comes upon an old African American man known as Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett. Uncle Remus has a reputation of being quite the raconteur often telling stories of the character, Br’er Rabbit, and his foes, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. When Uncle Remus sees Johnny, he asks him what he’s doing to which Johnny replies that he’s running away to Atlanta.
Uncle Remus uses his wisdom and tells Johnny that he was going to do just the same thing, but they should stop at his house first so he can pack and make some grub for the long walk. While there, he gets Johnny interested in a story about Br’er Rabbit.
As Uncle Remus tells the story, the film goes into the first of its three animated segments. In this story (which is also the source of the famous Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah song), Br’er Rabbit (voiced by Johnny Lee) is heading out on his journey leaving his briar patch for good. But, he gets trapped in a snare laid by the foe, Br’er Fox (voice by James Baskett), on the way. To escape, Br’er Rabbit tricks the dimwitted Br’er Bear (voiced by Nick Stewart) into trading places with him convincing him that this is a scarecrow job making a dollar a minute. Br’er Bear falls for this and ends up freeing Br’er Rabbit who heads back home to his safe briar patch before Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear can catch up with him.
Johnny learns a lesson from this story and decides not to continue on his Atlanta trek and instead returns to his grandmother’s home.
The next day, Johnny comes upon a neighboring poorer white family, the Favers, who have three kids. The boys are quite bullies, but the girl, Ginny, played by Luana Patten, befriends Johnny and even gives him a pet dog to keep that her brothers threatened to drown.
Johnny goes to Uncle Remus and hears another Br’er Rabbit story from him. In this one, Br’er Rabbit gets himself caught up in a tar baby (a figure made out of sticky tar) laid there by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. When the two catch Br’er Rabbit, he uses reverse psychology and tricks them into thinking that he’s fine with whatever they wanna do to him (including eat him) just as long as they don’t throw him in the briar patch. Thinking that this will be the end of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear throw him in the briar patch, but are shocked when they realize that that was Br’er Rabbit’s home all along!
Johnny utilizes the lesson from this story when the Favers boys threaten to tell Johnny’s mom about the dog. Johnny tells them that that’s fine just as long as the boys don’t tell THEIR mom! The boys fall for this trick and end up telling their mother who gives them a good straightening out due to it!
The boys then go to Johnny’s mother, Sally, to tell her about the dog. Sally had earlier told Johnny that he couldn’t keep the dog and after she realized that Johnny might have been inspired by Uncle Remus’ stories, she forbids Uncle Remus from telling Johnny any more stories. This hurts both Uncle Remus and Johnny as Uncle Remus has become a sort of fatherly figure to Johnny since his dad’s away.
Nevertheless, it’s not long before it’s Johnny’s birthday and he’s having a party at his house. He picks up Ginny to take her to the party, but the Favers boys follows them and a fight soon ensues. Uncle Remus comes in time to break up the fight and sends the Favers boys home.
To cheer up Johnny and Ginny, Uncle Remus breaks his promise and tells the kids another Br’er Rabbit story. In this story, Br’er Fox has captured Br’er Rabbit and is about to eat him, but Br’er Rabbit tricks him and Br’er Bear into seeing his “laughing place”. It turns out to be the location of a beehive which doesn’t end well for the twosome.
When Sally hears about this, she forbids Uncle Remus from even being around Johnny anymore. This saddens Uncle Remus who decides to pack up and head to Atlanta. When Johnny discovers that Uncle Remus is leaving, he runs after him trying to get him to come back, but is attacked by a bull and rendered unconscious. Everyone at the plantation is sad as Johnny goes in and out of consciousness. Fortunately, his father returns for good as well as Uncle Remus who starts narrating a Br’er Rabbit story which helps Johnny regain consciousness for good!
The film ends on a happy note with Johnny, Uncle Remus, Ginny, and an African American boy friend of theirs, Toby (whom I haven’t mentioned at all in this review yet), played by Glenn Leedy, singing along the way joined by Br’er Rabbit and some of the other animated creatures from the stories.
And that was Song of the South! Do I still find it boring? Honestly, no! I think this film is an incredibly made film that very carefully weaves a similarity between the stories Uncle Remus tells with what Johnny is going through in his life. The acting is very good overall; James Baskett was amazing and deserved his Academy Award win (even though it was only an honorary award)! Hattie McDaniel even appears in the film and does a good job with her role.
The songs are wonderful and I’m not just talking about Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, but many of the others including How Do You Do, Everybody’s Got a Laughing Place, and Uncle Remus Said. The animated segments are beautifully animated and expertly intertwined with the live actors!
Now, let’s address the elephant in the room: the “racism” of Song of the South! Before we discuss this, bear in mind, that I am not African American, so I cannot speak on behalf of them. So if anyone disagrees with what I say or thinks that I’ve misunderstood certain aspects of the film, please let me know in the comments.
From what I’ve seen, the “racism” of this movie stems from two factors, one of which is a misunderstanding. The first factor is that people assume this movie takes place during the Civil War, hence all the African Americans are slaves on the grandmother’s plantation. And people are upset that they’re portrayed as happy, jolly, and overall having a good time which is an incorrect and insensitive portrayal of slavery. But, this is a misunderstanding like I said; the film takes place AFTER the Civil War, hence the African Americans are now workers on the plantation, not slaves.
The second factor is that people consider the film racist due to the African American vernacular that the characters use when they speak. Now, as someone of Caribbean descent whose ancestors were indentured laborers, I can totally identify with the vernacular/creoles/pidgins that people under these sorts of conditions speak. So this didn’t bother me really as it just reminded me of how my Guyanese family and ancestors speak amongst themselves and how the creole came to be in the first place!
So based on those two factors, I wouldn’t say the film is racist as it doesn’t promote anything negative. Rather, it showcases a particular setting in a particular light. If you find the film to be racist, you have every right to, and you have every right to correct me on anything I’ve gotten wrong. I, on the other hand, hope that this film can get an official home video release soon, even if it’s accompanied by a disclaimer by Leonard Maltin or something like that!
(You can click on the image below for an enlarged version of my rating sheet.)
So, the final score for this film is 32/35 = 91.43% (A-) !
The next review will be posted on February 13, 2018.