Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
One of the Disney movies I remember best from my childhood years, was Song of the South, (aka Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah). Besides the highly infectious Academy Award winning title song, I will always remember with fondness, the character of Uncle Remus.
A 42 year old bit player, by the name of James Baskett, originally auditioned for the voice of one of the chief cartoon characters, Brer Fox. Not only did Mr. Baskett win that role, but he was selected by Walt Disney for the pivotal role of Uncle Remus, which happened to be the first live actor ever cast by Disney studies.
Based on the delightful folktales of Joel Chandler Harris, this 1946 post-World War II production, features the animated characters of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear,, in African-American morality tales somewhat akin to Aesop's Fables, (and quite possibly as old).
In my own Native American heritage, the character of Coyote, the Trickster has its parallels in Brer Rabbit, (the Brer, or B'rer referring to the title of Brother), which would later serve as the template for another studios wisenheimer Bunny.
Although our coyote is a teacher, through the exploits of the often rash Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus is able to use reverse psychology, (Briar Patch), and example, rather than point fingers and admonishing children with the usual, "You can't," "You must not," or the ever popular "You'll be sorry".
Along with live action scenes, these tales serve as instructional material for some of the young characters, (Johnny, Toby and Ginny), and become part of the best loved, Americana hand-me-down tradition courtesy of the movie's central character, who also sings some of the wonderfully catchy songs, such as the undeniably upbeat Academy Award winning theme song, written by Allie Wrubel and Ray Gilbert:
My, oh my,
What a wonderful day.
Plenty of sunshine coming my way,
Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder,
It's the truth, its actual,
Everything's so satisfactual,
Wonderful feeling, wonderful day.
The story is set only a few years after the Civil War, in a Disneyized and Technicolor sort of idealized Georgia of the mind, if not reality. Although some have railed at the unrealistic portrayal of jubilant slaves and masters, the actual tale concerns plantation members, (employee-employer), as well as family dynamics. As Disney's initial foray into live action, the sugar-coated bits can seem more cartoonized fantasy that historical fact.
Song Of The South Synopsis
Young Johnny, (Bobby Driscoll, Treasure Island),heads off for a summer vacation on the plantation of his maternal grandmother,(Lucille Watson). Although his mother has preceded him to the Georgia estate, his father, a newspaper editor has not. The 7 year old is understandably upset when he learns of his parents' separation.
Deciding to run away to Atlanta, the lonely little boy spies Uncle Remus, with a group of children, telling some tall tales of a headstrong and foolish character by the name of Brer Rabbit. The kindly old man finds Johnny in the woods, crying, and by the evidence of the small hobo sack by his side determines he means to run off.
Uncle Remus tells the child he has decided to accompany him on his journey but first they need some provisions, as Johnny didn't think to bring any food. Sitting by the fireside, roasting sweets, (sweet potatoes), Remus provides another story of Brer Rabbit, this time involving the unpleasant run in with Brer Fox, a hungry predator and Brer Bear, his less than brilliant side kick.
As the shadows lengthen, Johnny wonders if he should postpone running off, as it seems to be getting rather late. Servants are searching the plantation grounds, and young Toby (Glen Leedy), who has been set the task of serving as Johnny's shadow, finds him with Uncle Remus.
Johnny's mother Sally, (Ruth Warrick, All My Children's dowager empress, Phoebe Cates), is less than thrilled with his disappearance and tells Uncle Remus she isn't sure he should be filling the boy's head with nonsense stories, (even though Uncle Remus shared these same parables with her as a young girl).
Besides befriending Toby, Johnny comes across Ginny, (Luana Patton, Johnny Tremaine), a sharecropper's child and her two bullying older brothers, as they declare themselves ready to drown her pup, the runt of the litter. Ginny gives the dog to Johnny, who talks Uncle Remus into taking him into his cabin.
When Johnny's mother finds out about the unauthorized pet, she insists this be given back to Ginny's family, where the brothers again plan to harm the pet. Along the way, Uncle Remus has more stories of The Laughing Place and other adventures, and Disney being Disney, there are a number of spritely songs to suit.
At one point Ginny is to attend Johnny's party, and her pretty dress, her mother's made-over wedding dress, becomes muddied by the two bossy brothers. Johnny, whose only birthday wish is to see his father, attempts to make Sally feel better, along with the help of Uncle Remus.
When Sally puts her foot down and tells Uncle Remus no more Brer Rabbit stories, and it might be better to leave Johnny alone, the old gentleman decides it's time for him to leave the plantation. Without giving away the finale, Johnny comes to some harm near the end, and somehow the storylines come together in typical Disneyesque happy ending style.
Song of The South was released just 4 more times after its initial debut, )1956, 1972-1973, 1980 and 1986),in line with the majority of Disney Classics. Available on video or laser disc, in countries such as Australia, England and Japan, controversy has prevented this marvelous, warm-hearted film from ever seeing video release in the United States.
The main reason sited, is the NAACP's concern, (voiced at the time of the initial release), for the racial stereotypes portrayed; however the NAACP has gone on to say they never wanted the film banned, but just sought to point up their concerns. I would have to agree that the cook-with-a-heart-of-gold, Aunt Tempy, (Hattie McDaniel), with of-the-day kerchiefed headress, and broad Southern dialect, somewhat reprising her role as Mammy, from another masterpiece, Gone With The Wind, is not politically correct.
Those most offended by highly stylized characters/caricatures such as Mammy, and to my mind the much more obnoxious role of Prissy, (again from GWTW), take understanding umbrage with a specific episode, Brer Rabbit an The Tire [sic] Baby, as being especially odious.
I have all the Little Golden Books of this series, and the (melted rubber) Baby, a creature made out of tar, with coat button eyes and corn cob bowl for a nose, jaunty cap and coat, was a vehicle for Brers Fox and Bear, to catch the unsuspecting Brer Rabbit. Even as a child, I thought there was something distasteful about this construct, though I couldn't quite put my finger, (or foot), on it at the time.
Another complaint, as mentioned above, is the depiction of happy "slaves", which some decry as historically incorrect. While the plight of both White and Black Southerners, immediately following the Civil War, was anything but rosy or halycon, it seems likely that former slaves would be happier as free men and women of color, than as chattel.
As a woman of mixed ethnic background, I can tell you that I have had to come to terms with Italians in pancake makeup playing Indians, rotund squaws with crossed arms grunting "Ugh", and icons of the Stanford Indians, the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves. These, I can put in perspective, as being a sign of the times, and move on.
I see those as caricatures, certainly stereotypical but not offensive, and have been gladdened to see the progress Hollywood has made toward letting "real" Native peoples, such as Adam Beach and Graham Greene, among others, give more realistic, 3 dimensional portrayals of American Indians.
Racial stereotyping, can of course go two ways. I winced at the "poor white trash" portrayal of the two Favers boys as mean and stupid, and the snippy, narrow-minded high-handedness of Sally. Even Johnny came across as a cloying Little Lord Fauntleroy character, girlish, sissyish; most of the time sniveling or just plain peevish, a role he would basically reprise in Treasure Island.
Interestingly, James Baskett's multi-talented portrayal of Uncle Remus, underscored the latter's charm, intelligence, maturity and down-to-earth wisdom far beyond any other character in this Disney production.
A special award was provided him by the Academy, who demonstrated a certain degree of bravery, and much good sense, going beyond the current color barriers; judging an actor by talent alone, "for his able and warm-hearted characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the children of the world."
Final Thoughts & Rating
Ultimately this is a classic film, with equal parts live action, spirited animation, and excellent soundtrack. Although one has to wonder at the actual condition of the freed slaves portrayed here, the music seems to at least hint at a more mixed variety of emotions. While giving praise in one gospel number, in another, fashioned around Uncle Remus' decision to leave, the gospel choir underscores the struggle and storminess that also were part and parcel of making a new way, in the New South.
In true Disney fashion, the mother is the chief villain, though never so outright as in animated features like Cinderella, or Snow White. (The return of the puppy is especially loathsome to this adult child's heart). The father comes home, neatly wrapping up the uneasy estrangement, and makes veiled statements to suggest the mother's less than liberal treatment of Uncle Remus should be frowned on and avoided.
I give this film 5 stars, though I should down-rate this for the Disney Studios/Buena Vista Distributing moratorium on either future viewing or video releases. While this film is available, at great cost, though eBay and Half.com, (converted from the foreign PAL format to one viewable in the United States), Disney has, as of December 2001, put a stop to further foreign releases as well.
An excellent website: http://www.SongoftheSouth.net has lots of trivia, hard-to-find merchandise, and even a link to another website, where a petition, now nearly 10,000 signatures strong-and counting-entreats the cinematic Powers That Be for the home video release of this classic, early Disney film.
The work of the ultimate fan, Christian Willis, the former website is the best respository of all things Song Of the South, and the webmaster has even taken the time to transcribe the entire script, (sans musical score), for your reading delight.
If you are lucky enough to get your hands on the movie, and view it with children, I would suggest an age-suitable discussion to follow, to let them understand the stereotypes used in this 1946 release, and your feelings about them.
This review is part of the Markham Shaw Pyle Multi-Media Write Off, held in honor of his 39-something Birthday. MSP, is most widely recognized as an amazingly erudite book reviewer, and also happens to be a personal friend.
Markham has invited a number of Epinionators to write a review, in one of three categories: Music, Books or Movies.
We were also instructed to chose a title that would reflect upon one of MSP's several loves, Baseball, Music, Politics, The South or General History.
*July 18, 2000 Update* Due to confusion with Epinions data base/search engine, when inputting the rightful title of this movie, Song of the South, a ersatz, hybrid product came up, Song Of The South: Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. At the time of my search zero reviews were listed as having been written.
I noticed the wrong jpeg picture, but have had this happen several times before in other areas I write, so emailed Epinions for a bug fix, with a link to the proper photo, courtesy of http://www.songofthesouth.net. I also wrote both Movie CLs of my intent in correcting this problem.
It wasn't until after posting my review, and received a first OT rating, that I clicked on this member's name and found they'd reviewed a movie, Disney Sing-a-Long: Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, which is a children's animated series, with one song from this movie.
I was given a choice of options. Since another member's review had pre-dated mine, (and this through the Sing-A-Long link rather than Song of the South), I not only did not OT this review, though I read it, but asked Eps' staff to do the honorable thing and correct the title for the children's video and temporarily move my review to a "holding" spot, with correct title.
Thanks to the more than 100 people who took the time to read and rate my review. I look forward to having the Movie CLs assist in next placing this movie review within the proper context as the data becomes available. All previous ratings will be returned at this point.
*Update: June 26, 2006*: Yippity do dah, this review's found its rightful home. Thanks to the hard-working Epinions.com staff for fixing the 'bug' and to my champion, Pogomom Helen for personal assistance in expediting this matter!
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children up Ages 8