Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Movie Review: Song of the South (1946)

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun animated stories in an entertaining film
Cons: Very hard to see; some acting, especially from the kids
The Bottom Line
Decent enough film
Viewed in historic context
Open dialogue

Disney's Unfairly Controversial Song of the South

It is the stuff of legends.  There are whispers.  There are rumors.  It’s the movie that Disney is ashamed of (except when they use it).  What am I talking about?  Song of the South.  The movie was last in the theaters in 1986, and the only video release was long before mass consumption of VHS tapes began.  I was lucky enough to finally get to watch the film this year.  While I can see cause for concern, I certainly don’t see why it is self-censored.

The movie tells the story of Johnny (Bobby Driscoll), a young boy in the south during the 1800’s (more on that later).  For reasons that are never explained, his father is sending he and his mother (Ruth Warrick) to live with his grandmother (Lucile Watson) on her plantation somewhere outside of Atlanta.  All we really get a feel for is that his newspaper articles are controversial.

Johnny doesn’t like being left without his father, so he sets out to head for home.  Before he gets too far, he meets up with Uncle Remus (James Baskett).  This kindly old man tells him a series of stories about the misadventures of Br'er Rabbit and his encounters with Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear that teach Johnny lessons and convince him to stay on the plantation.  How will others react to these stories?  And will Johnny’s father ever return?

The Movie as a Movie

Before we get to the controversy, let’s discuss the movie as a movie.  I knew the basic premise and that it involved humans and animation.  What I didn’t realize is just how much of the film is actually live action.  I would say the majority of it is live action.  This was the first film Disney ever made that wasn’t mostly animated, so right there it has some historical value.

The animated sequences are wonderful and easily the highlight of the film.  They are simple tales with morals to learn, although the lesson of the second one is questionable.  Each sequence has its own song, and they are all catchy.  At times, the humans interact with the cartoon characters ala Mary Poppins, and the result looks great.

The live action parts can be overly acted and overly dramatic.  This is especially true when it focuses on the kids.  Bobby Driscoll would go on to act in Disney’s take on Treasure Island and voice the lead in Peter Pan, which I love.  Here, he’s over the top if he has to do anything requiring emotion.  Likewise, a neighbor girl he meets (Luana Patten) isn’t the best actress.  Everyone is passable, but the acting in the biggest weakness of the film.

Frankly, the animated portions are the best parts of the film.  These short stories present a simple conflict that is quickly resolved.  The live actions parts can be slow at times with conflict that is barely there.  Still, it is entertaining enough to keep you watching and it does create characters you care about, so you do care about the ending.

Purely based on entertainment, I give the film 4 stars.  (And you’ll notice that is how I rated it.)

The Controversy

So let’s get down to the good stuff.  Why is this movie so controversial?  Keep in mind that this is nothing new.  It was boycotted when it was released in 1946, and in 1970, Disney announced they would never release it again, something they reversed just two years later.  But as I said earlier, it has not been available or shown in the states since the mid 1980’s.

I can certainly see some cause for concern.  If you are trying to get any historical lessons from it, you’ll be sadly misguided.  The biggest question is when does the movie take place.  The original stories that the movie is based on are apparently set after the Civil War.  If that’s the case, why is the plantation where the film takes place so well put together instead of ravaged.  The fact that Uncle Remus almost leaves and seems to come and go at will would back this theory on the time the story is set.  But the movie never says, so we can only assume.  If it is set before the Civil War, the fact that he almost leaves is very problematic since surely he would have been a slave.  I chose to view the film as taking place post-Civil War and will be discussing it at such.

As I said, this is one I will definitely grant detractors.  Like it or not, we do get ideas on history based on films.  And since this is my complaint about Disney’s Pocahontas, I have to acknowledge the issue here, too.

But some of the other complaints I have seen have just been bizarre bordering on ignorant.  Yes, I went there.  The biggest one I have seen is the complaint that the former slaves are shown singing while they work or when relaxing together at night.  Um, hello?  Where did all those Spirituals come from?  That’s right – slaves singing to lift their spirits while working.

Or there’s the complaint about the scene where Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear set a trap for Br'er Rabbit using a tar figure, a figured covered in tar that they hope he will stick to so they can catch him.  The complaint?  The tar is black.  Black equals racists.  Um, hello?  Tar is black and a sticky substance you can get stuck in.  They chose that color to be realistic and that substance for it's plot potential, not to be remotely racist at all.  Plus, they were copying a story from the originals, published in 1881.  Honestly, this the fact that this term has a dual meaning should not be used to penalize a movie or a person who is using the better known, more traditional meaning of the phrase.  Context is everything, and you need to learn that.

Then there is how Uncle Remus interacts with Johnny’s mom and grandma.  He treats them with deference and respect.  You might almost say like an employee to employer or a former slave to former owner/current employer.  Yet people complain about it.  Frankly, I find it completely believable.  It is frustrating because Uncle Remus gets in trouble (only in words, no actual punishments) for what he does, yet he is looking out for Johnny and doing what he thinks is best in each situation.  Honestly, I want to get him to defend himself because he is right (something everyone agrees on by the end).  But where would the conflict in the story be if that happened.  Again, I think this is a realistic portrayal given the time that the movie was made and is set.

Which brings me to why I think the movie is actually anti-racist.  Johnny makes two friends his own age in the course of the film – Ginny, the white little girl down the road, and Toby (Glenn Leedy), the son of one of the former slaves living on the plantation.  It’s the kind of friendship that only kids can make, “I just met you and we are best friends now.”  This color blind acceptance is a very powerful example, especially for the time period when the movie was made.  And none of the adults say anything about it either.

The only true villains of the piece are Ginny’s older brothers.  Yes, the neighborhood bullies are white.

Then there is the relationship with Uncle Remus.  Johnny’s grandmother and father both show him respect.  And, in my mind, Uncle Remus is the only one who shows he truly cares for Johnny.  Johnny’s mom is too wrapped up in her own cares to listen to what Johnny tries to tell her multiple times.  Uncle Remus cares and parents.  He’s the best adult role model in the film.

Furthermore, all the former slaves on the plantation are treated with respect like humans.

Okay, all the pluses are certainly not time realistic.  There may have been an isolated plantation or two like this, but I’m sure they were the exception.

So this movie fails as history.  Then again, what movie is good history?  Those who try to learn their history from movies are going to be grossly misinformed.  But let’s look at the positives here.  The African-American characters are treated with respect and shown to be human.  And the white characters are color blind, treating them with some measure of respect.  That had to be a radical notion in 1946, and yet it is ignored when discussing this film.

So how do I think it should be handled?  See, that’s the beauty of DVD and Blu-Ray.  This film could be released like several of the Disney company’s shorts have been handled.  A brief disclaimer could air when you hit play that reminds you this is a romanticized view of history and to treat it only as entertainment.  It also reflects the views of the time when it was made and not those the company holds today.  From there, they could create an extra feature talking more about what life was really like in that time and how the Uncle Remus stories were first preserved from the oral history of the former slaves right after the Civil War.

How Disney Treats This Movie

For a movie that hasn’t been released 20+ years, they sure keep it around in our consciousness.  The highly popular ride Splash Mountain takes its inspiration for the inside scenes from the animated portions of the movie.  All three of the songs are included as well.  The tar scene has been switched to honey, which I have no problem with.  But why build a ride about a movie you are embarrassed to show any more?

Then there’s the music.  You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the songs by name yet.  There is one you’ll immediately recognize – “Zip-a-dee-doh-dah.”  Yep, that classic comes from this movie.  I have it on several Disney CD’s.  I even have a copy of the song “Everybody’s Got a Laughing Place” from this movie as well.  Again, if you are so embarrassed, why include more than the most famous song anywhere.

I’ve even noticed walk around characters of Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear in Critter Country in Disneyland in the last couple of years.  Yes, that’s right by Splash Mountain, but is anyone going to know who they are outside the ride in another 10 years?

Frankly, I find the way Disney treats this movie shameful.  No, it does not reflect current attitudes.  It’s nice to see how far we have come.  So why can’t we still view it and use it to discuss attitudes, how they change, and what else should change.

So if you get a chance to see the film, I highly recommend you do so.  Song of the South is not a highly entertaining classic, but it is fun.  More importantly, you can form your own opinions about this highly controversial film.

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