Song Of The South: The Racist Disney Movie That Splash Mountain Is Based On

By | June 11, 2020

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(The Walt Disney Company)

No matter when you grew up, Song Of The South has had an effect on you, whether you know it or not. Maybe you saw it in theaters, or you know the characters from Splash Mountain, Disney's immensely popular log flume ride. Even if you've managed to avoid a trip to Disneyland, you know the song "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." You're probably whistling it right now. No matter your connection to Song Of The South, however, you likely only vaguely know about the film's racist history and the events that turned it from a box office hit to the only film in Disney's vault that will never be released on Disney+.

What Is Song Of The South?

Song Of The South is a live-action/animated musical produced by The Walt Disney Company that follows a young boy named Johnny who moves to a plantation with his mother and a housekeeper played by Academy Award–winner Hattie McDaniel. When Johnny tries to run away to Atlanta to be with his father, he encounters Uncle Remus (James Baskett), a kindly old man who tells tall tales to keep Johnny from running away.

Remus's stories are told through an early mix of live action and animation that still looks good today. Each segment—featuring Southern folk characters Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear—is a parable about the big and scary world outside the plantation, which convinces Johnny to stay home with his mother.

Like Gone With The Wind, Song Of The South is a romantic look at Reconstruction-era America. Today, Disney's take on plantation life is jarring, but the story of how the film came to be and the way cultural responses to it have morphed over time is fascinating.

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(The Walt Disney Company)

Nearly A Decade In The Making

By 1946, Disney was running on fumes, financially. The company spent World War II producing shorts for the U.S. military essentially at cost, and the films that were released to theaters during the war didn't make a lot of money. The company had to fire half of its employees—that is, half of what remained following a strike that left Disney with a much smaller crew than the army of artists it took to produce hits like Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.

At the time, Walt Disney had been trying to produce Song Of The South for nearly a decade. He approached the estate of Joel Chandler Harris, the children's author behind Br'er Rabbit, in 1939 with the concept of a series of fully animated films about Uncle Remus, but by the time Disney seriously started thinking about production, there was no budget for a fully animated film.

Rather than scrap years of work, Disney decided that only one-third of the film would be animated. The rest would be a live-action film based in Georgia but filmed in Arizona.