The 2019 season of film historian Karina Longworth’s must-hear podcast series “You Must Remember This” took listeners on a deep dive into the saga of Disney’s most controversial movie, “Song of the South.” (As a testament to Longworth’s range, this season, she’s set to explore the erotic thrillers of the 1980s and ’90s.) As Walt Disney Studios continues to roll out its vast library of titles on the Disney+ streaming service, one of them is missing, and it’s the 1946 Uncle Remus adaptation with confused racial optics.
The film is set in the Reconstruction-era American south, just as the Civil War has concluded and slavery has ended. And while the film’s legacy has been mostly buried, the Disney theme park ride Splash Mountain (which, at Disney World, is temporarily closed) is modeled on this troubling movie that Longworth savvily explored in her podcast.
In fact, Disney World has removed “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from the soundtrack of the Festival of Fantasy parade, a regular attraction that recently returned to the Magic Kingdom March 9. It’s a song we all know from our childhood, but one mired in implications we didn’t understand at that the time — and it remains a source of pain for Disney and audiences alike.
As Longworth discussed in the podcast, “Song of the South” smacked of minstrelsy and divided audiences in its depiction of the lives of post-Civil War plantation workers, even though it has remained commercially resonant for Disney all these years later.
Below, 13 things to know about “Song of the South,” which will not be coming to any streaming service any time soon.
The Famous Theme Song Has Been Pulled from Disney Parks
The Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” originated from “Song of the South,” and it’s seemingly ubiquitous at Disney Parks and parades. Now, as Disney works to remove controversial aspects of the film from its properties, the song has now been removed from the daily Magic Happens parade at its California location. Last year, Disney already removed it from the Festival of Fantasy parade, a regular attraction of the Magic Kingdom at Disney World.
The Magic Happens parade, which returned February 24 after multiple years on hiatus, now instead features a song from 1953’s “Peter Pan.”
Disney World Is Transforming ‘Song’-Inspired ‘Splash Mountain’ into a New Homage
Splash Mountain, the beloved Disney World ride inspired by the movie, will be rebranded as an homage to “The Princess and the Frog,” the first Disney animated film to be led by a Black female character. Disney Parks made the announcement back in 2021. Concept art shows the characters Tiana, Naveen, and Louis as they sail through a Mardi Gras celebration, to be recreated as part of the ride, with original music inspired by songs from the movie, set to play throughout the log-flume attraction.
The Film Will Never Be Available on Disney+
Unlike some Disney titles that come with certain content warnings on the Disney+ streaming service, “Song of the South” will never be available even with an “outdated cultural depictions” disclaimer on the platform.
Disney CEO Bob Iger addressed the issue back in 2020 as the streaming service started its rollout of classic titles.
During one of Disney’s annual shareholder meetings, Iger answered an audience question about what will and won’t be made available to stream from the Disney library, adding that this film is “not appropriate in today’s world” and therefore will not be re-released.
It Won’t Be on Disney+
Disney chief Bob Iger has said that “Song of the South” “wouldn’t necessarily sit right or feel right to a number of people today,” but others have called for Disney+ to host the movie as an historic artifact.
Hollywood historian Cari Beauchamp told The Guardian, “To not include it is to pretend it doesn’t exist. They do exist and they need to be put in context: when was it made? What world was it reflecting? Disney loves being praised for having princesses that are from diverse backgrounds, but you have to look at the whole history.”
It Earned James Baskett an Oscar
James Baskett received an honorary Academy Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus, dispenser of life-lessons for Bobby Driscoll’s Johnny, who moves from Atlanta to his grandmother’s plantation. The character of Uncle Remus, originated in the collected stories of Joel Chandler Harris, epitomizes the Magical Negro trope that persists in Hollywood today. Baskett won the Oscar in March 1948, but died later that year from complications from diabetes.
It’s the Origin of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”
That infectious earworm about looking up at the sunny side of life, composed by Allie Wrubel with lyrics by Ray Gilbert, earned a Best Original Song Academy Award, and remains a Disney favorite.
The NAACP Slammed the Movie
Through the NAACP commended the movie’s technical wizardry and its blend of animation and live action, the organization said in a statement that it “regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the North or South, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery … [the film] unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship, which is a distortion of the facts.”
It’s the Inspiration for Splash Mountain
The characters, songs, and locations from “Song of the South” all form the basis for the beloved log flume ride featured at Disneyland and Disney World. The ride launched in 1989, and incorporates elements from the film’s animated segments, led by Br’er Rabbit, and antagonists Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear.
You Won’t Find it on DVD
“Song of the South” has never received a home video release in the United States. In 2019, Disney CEO Bob Iger said “it wouldn’t be in the best interest of our shareholders to bring it back, even though there would be some financial gain.” A VHS and LaserDisc release, however, exist overseas.
Not All Black Press Hated the Movie
While Richard Dier of The Afro-American called the film “as vicious a piece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood ever produced,” Herman Hill, who was USC’s first Black basketball player and later became a civil rights activist and journalist, wrote in The Pittsburgh Courier the the film could “prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations,” and labeled criticisms of the film as “unadulterated hogwash symptomatic of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humorless brethren these days.”
Disney Knew What It Was Dealing With
During the film’s production, Disney already felt uneasy. Studio publicist Disney publicist Vern Caldwell wrote to “Song of the South” producer Perce Pearce to say “the negro situation is a dangerous one. Between the negro haters and the negro lovers there are many chances to run afoul of situations that could run the gamut all the way from the nasty to the controversial.”
The Film’s Cast Stood Behind the Movie
“Song of the South” counts among its ensemble Hattie McDaniel, the “Gone With the Wind” star and first Black entertainer to win an Academy Award. In a 1947 interview, she told the American publication The Criterion, “If I had for one moment considered any part of the picture degrading or harmful to my people, I would not have appeared therein.” Her co-star James Baskett echoed her support of the film, saying, “I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the ‘Song of the South.’”
The Film Was a Box-Office Success Even 40 Years Later
When Disney began rereleasing many of its flagship animated titles in the 1980s to capitalize on nostalgia, “Song of the South” returned to theaters. Despite the negative light cast by the film in 1946, the film still resonated with audiences 40 years later in 1986 — it netted more than $17 million when it toured theaters a second time.
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