Written Movie Review
Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee-A. My oh my what’s no longer acceptable today.
This is a movie, a half animated, half live action children’s story, that features a lovable bear, a fox, and a rabbit; two little children and their dog; and a smiling cast of lovable, black-skinned, slaves.
In a Disney film.
See, the film takes place what I thought was pre-civil war, if not during the civil war, American south. But it turns out it’s post-civil war, Jim Crow American south. You’ll notice very quickly that all of the live action black characters are house servants, or to put it more bluntly, they are (former) slaves or indentured servants- without ever calling them slaves or indentured servants. After all, you can’t have a Disney film that openly deals with slavery.
Even though you totally can, so long as it’s a vague and nonthreatening mention, rather than any actual emotional portrayal of real people.
Song of the South, the 1946 Disney film (though I wouldn’t use the phrase classic) that has been collectively forgotten about by mostly everyone, especially those who loves Disney films.
Its not been re-released from the “Disney Vault” since 1986. Also, as an aside: my theory is that the Disney Vault is a real place, deep beneath Walt’s grave right next to his frozen head. There’s a big circular, old-fashioned vault door, with two smaller circles located on the upper right and left of the door. Behind this mouse shaped, cavernous porthole are the dusty film negatives to Cinderella, Snow White, and Alice in Wonderland. Just in the distance is a dimly lit corner of the vault, a small lock-box sits perched on a pedestal. On it, written in a hastily red felt tip, is “Song of the South.” A small curator you didn’t even notice come in motions you away.
“Don’t worry about that,” he says, eyes squinting. “We have top men working on it right now.”
“Who?” you ask, looking over your shoulder as he pushes you out, the box becoming smaller and smaller as it fades out of view.
“Top men,” he mutters coldly.
A small boy (a boy who’s so uninspired a character that I actually forgot his name) traveling to a plantation with his mother and father is sad that his father is leaving as soon as they arrive to go and run a newspaper and for some other nondescript reasons, so the boy is left to live on the big plantation by himself with no one to keep him company but his dang old stupid mom and grandma (I think that’s who the older woman there is supposed to be). He’s just so unaccustomed to all of this estrogen in one place.
Luckily, he quickly befriends the kind and wise old black gentlemen, subtly named Uncle Remus (who of course lives in a quaint little cabin on the edge of the plantation). Remus tells the young hero the tales of Br’er Rabbit and his cunning foes, Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox. The three get into all sorts of hi-jinks, and each of their tales are neatly wrapped up with a moral bow that conveniently ties in to the young boy’s current dilemma.
It’s sort of easy to assume then that Remus is making these stories up on the spot, and it really is too bad that this is still the Jim Crow south, Remus would have made one hell of a children’t novelist.
So anyway, as the film progresses the young boy meets his own cast of characters- a young girl, also so bland I forgot her name, her two older brothers, and a young black boy, also also so bland I forgot his name. Really this is a reoccurring theme with these character’s names aside from Remus. I mean, I know the mom and dad and grandma had a name, the girl and her brothers and the little black boy had a name, all of the black
slaves servants had names. Even the dog had a name, I think. It’s just that I can’t for the life of me remember them without looking them up. Now normally for the sake of being informational I’d take the time to simply do the research, but this is a detriment to the film as a whole. Our characters are so one dimensional I can’t even remember what they’re called, and that says something, so I’m not going to do it any favors.
The film ends with the young boy getting into trouble for numerous reasons and ultimately being forbidden from seeing Uncle Remus again. Remus decides this is enough to leave the plantation. The boy is so disheartened by this that he runs to stop Uncle Remus from leaving, and decides to take a short cut the fastest way possible, which is to cut through the bull pin.
Now, I’m going to venture a guess that the boy and his mother have been living on this plantation for several months now, if not having lived there before this. That boy is perfectly aware the layout of the plantation and the exact location of this bull (no pun intended). He very easily could have ran around it. Though giving him the benefit of the doubt, lets assume he was too grief stricken to notice. It still doesn’t explain why he deemed a shortcut necessary. Remus isn’t about to get on a jet-plane and the boy doesn’t need to hurriedly run through the terminal to the soundtrack of some Phil Collins song. He’s not even about to get on a horse and buggy. He’s on foot. He’s walking. He’s not left yet. He’s barely moved. He’s an old man in his 60s vs. the speed of a young, 10 year old boy.
I’m pretty sure he could have caught up with him.
But, as the film needed some sort of conflict that wasn’t totally lame (“eek my dress got muddy before the party!” “oh no! ma won’t let us keep the dog!” “aw shoot, them bullies is mean!”), the boy gets off-screen impaled by the bull. It’s not exactly graphic, but I can only guess that with the current state of medicine during this time period the boy has mere minutes to live before his colon promptly exits through his abdomen. But, with the power of Remus by his side, and the entire group of black residents gathered outside the plantation house (but not inside it, that’s only for white folk), the boy makes a miraculous recovery. And ending I can only surmise that someone on the set probably at one time or another referred to as “negro magic.”
We end on a shot of the quad-squad of characters, white-boy, black-boy, white-girl, and Uncle Remus, as they all have a collective acid trip as the animated Br’er Rabbit and his woodland friends are all present with them, Roger Rabbit style (coincidence that they’re both rabbits? Illuminati theory updated). They all trot off into the sunset singing the only renement of this film that survived being locked away forever in shame, Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah.
The racism is blatant, even for 1946.
While it’s sort of a sadly expected feature of the “good old days,” its really, really heavy handed here. See, when most people of the past were (and a lot of people of today are) being racist, it’s usually to insult or dehumanize people of color with quick, “humorous” jokes or stereotypes. They were terrible, of course, but Song of the South takes is a whole step further.
Song of the South presents you with a narrative that people of color (in this case, black people specifically) enjoy being slaves. Again, tying into the fact that they never are addressed as slaves, so that makes it okay. I’ve seen arguments made online that they live on the plantation as share croppers and are completely free to leave at any point, and while that may be true, the actual economics of the time period would have been absolute financial suicide for a person of color to try and strive out on there own in the deep south. They were stuck on that plantation and we knew it, but there’s no way they could have been happy, as I’m sure no more than a decade ago Mama and Papa Freeman were technically property belonging to Mama and Papa Whitepeople. I’m sure that’s a wound that’s not yet healed.
This kind of racism has been around for a long time of course and can be cited in many different works, but I think what sets this apart is its inclusion in a Disney children’s film. I’m going to assume that target audience in 1946 was middle to upper class white kids who’s parents would have been able to afford sending them to see a movie at the tail end of the great depression. They grew up seeing a film that told them old black men were all wise story tellers and old black women were perfect nannys, white southerners were kind to their former property, and black people had nothing at all negative to say about white people.
It’s revisionist history at worst, and at best it’s just insensitive. The best part of the film were the animated segments, and the characters there have gone on to become the main attractions at Splash Mountain in Disney World, but even they are filled with stereotypes one way or another. Br’er Rabbit is the sly, jazz talking young black man, Br’er Bear is the big, lumbering idiot black man, and Br’er Fox is the scheming, not to be trusted black man. If I were a racist, there’s a choice word that starts with “n” that you could use to replace “black man” in all of those descriptions and be pretty much on the money of what was probably going through the minds of the filmmakers.
It’s Cheap and It’s Boring
Song of the South is the first Disney feature to be made post-wartime. Old Walt was no longer in service as commissioned propaganda cartoonist for the US Government (seriously, look that up, it’s what he and Warner Brothers were doing all throughout World War II), and his then fledgling company had still to become the behemoth we know it as today.
Disney was in need of another hit as their so-called “golden age” of animation as well as the war were over. Having just acquired the rights to the original stories Song of the South was based on, he opted to go with a half animated, half live action picture. Focus being shifted this time on the live action segments as to cost him far, far less money in man hours to produce as handdrawn animation was and still is very costly.
The live action segments became the frame to the animated stories. As such, the expected Disney brand creativity was sorely lacking. They only needed to be vehicles to tell the stories of Br’er Rabbit, so really all they had to do was be just compelling (see: filler) enough to get us to the next time Uncle Remus would get to talk. The child actors are terrible, their line deliveries are horrible and their characters are nonexistent. The best actor was hands down James Baskett, who later won an honorary academy award for his performance as Uncle Remus, the first black male actor to do so. But even his performance (as the only one on the cast who you can tell actually gave two shits) can’t save this film.
Song of the South drags immensely. Never once did I care for the live action characters or their conflicts, and as such never once did I say “oh, I wonder what happens next!?” It falls into the trapof being “well, it’s for kids, it doesn’t have to be that great.” Which is surprising coming from the company that would later usher in the great era of Pixar that we are still so privileged enough to live in today.
Disney’s early work tended to follow this pretty extensively, the saving grace being that most of his works were pre-established fairy tells. All he had to was repackage them in just the right way, and the story was basically paint by numbers for him. Hearing this is probably heresy to some die hard Disney fanatics (Dishard Disnatics), but I really don’t think personally that Disney got into its stride until the “Disney Renaissance” of the 1980s and 90s. Even then it’s still mostly packaged retellings of fairy tails, the twist now though being that some actual subversion to the tropes are used, and they’re used effectively. Song of the South doesn’t subvert from anything. It’s just a straight forward “good ol’ days” tale that has questionable social motives.
So in Conclusion…
Though you might be asking, is Song of the South inherently racist? Well, no, on the surface level it’s actually a harmless little film about childhood adventure, even going so far as to actually have black and white characters befriend one another without it being a “we need to fight and overcome this” subplot (which has only ever been done right in one film, and that was Remember the Titans). But the underlying subtexts when you get down to it are pretty obvious. The ideas that black folks would be even remotely content living on the plantation where we know that prior to this white people held them in the same regards as they would a toaster.
Song of the South is dull and repetitive. It follows the same formula: the kid has a problem, Uncle Remus solves the problem with Br’er Rabbit story, the kid applies the lesson he learned in real life, ad nauseam. I will say on a technical level the animation is great, and while the characters themselves are stereotypes, if you can track down just the animated segments they’re probably worth a watch. The mixing of live action with animation is actually impressive for its time. From the 1900’s to the 1930’s there were really only a few entries in American film to that sub-genre until Disney blasted it open in the 40’s starting with Fantasia. Obviously better films have been made with this technique since then having already mentioned Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but for its era it’s a pretty neat effect, though it probably would have fared better if it had been used more extensively.
So, my final rating?
A solid 4 out of 10. It’s not the most terrible film I’ve ever seen, but I don’t recommend you watch it for any other reason than its historical context and understanding where we as a society have came and still where we need to go moving onward. It’s boring and not very well paced and while the animation work is as usual on par with Disney’s charm, it’s so far and few in between and there’s only about a grand total of about 25 minutes worth if you play all the segments together. Also, I forgot to mention, but this is technically a musical- I forgot in the same way I forgot the main characters names, bland songs that are just cruised over. All in all this is probably one of Disney’s weakest films he’d made in his lifetime.
Though, being honest, Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah is a f***ing catchy song.