Song of the South: A Slightly Different Perspective
By Jeff Pepper
There are any number of hot button topics out there that ignite the Disney faithful to debates both passionate and contentious. I typically only enter into these discussions if I feel I can provide a unique perspective of the issue at hand. I have lately come to realize that I might have a decidedly different view than most on Song of the South.
Long a subject of blogs, forums and the occasional mainstream media article, the film’s secure-in-the-vaults status has been a disappointment to American Disney enthusiasts for quite a number of years. As far back as the early 1990s, this 1946 mix of live action and animation has been deemed a potential powder keg of political incorrectness and racial insensitivity and considerations for a domestic release have always quickly died on the vine. But while Disney CEO Robert Iger seemed to send a generally discouraging message about a Song of the South release at his first stockholders meeting in 2006, recent comments at this year’s New Orleans conference seemed to indicate a softening on the subject. When again asked about the status of the situation, Iger responded:
"The question of 'Song of the South' comes up periodically, in fact it was raised at last year's annual meeting. And since that time, we've decided to take a look at it again because we've had numerous requests about bringing it out. Our concern was that a film that was made so many decades ago being brought out today perhaps could be either misinterpreted or that it would be somewhat challenging in terms of providing the appropriate context."
For any animation fan and student of Disney history, those are encouraging words indeed. Yet I have to say that I personally feel surprisingly indifferent to a Song of the South release. A decidedly different point of view from an individual who has long decried the suppression of Disney history in the name of political correctness.
In fairness, I have to say that I have for quite some time been able to view Song of the South at my convenience. Japanese and British editions have made this possible for close to a decade and a half. So in that regard I do not have the basic frustrations of inaccessibility that many possess.
Disney last made the movie available to American audiences when they re-released it to theaters in 1986. In the twenty years since, issues of content have escalated into a controversy that has ultimately overshadowed the film itself. In essence, Song of the South has by and large become greater than the sum of its parts. For at its core, and despite having provided the now-iconic strains of "Zip-a-dee Doo-dah" and vivid and colorful animated sequences, it does little to truly distinguish itself from other Disney films of the same time period. And thus comes forth my previously indicated indifference; the film is simply not worthy of all the “legend” it has come to be associated with.
As entertainment, much can be said for the film’s energetic music and well realized animated characters. Yet taken as a whole, it is an uneven, and at times disjointed endeavor. The live-action sequences tend to be slow and without spirit, marked especially by very annoying overacting on the part of its juvenile players, most notably Bobby Driscoll. And while its racial stereotyping is generally benign and without malice, it severely dates the film in a manner that will likely undermine any lasting endearment current and future audiences might have developed for it. In much the same manner that the stature of Gone With the Wind, with its similar racial undertones, has diminished over the past two decades, so likely will Song of the South ultimately become classified more as film history than timeless entertainment.
While I certainly would welcome a DVD that featured a restored Song of the South and included comprehensive supplemental material, I could make the same request for numerous other Disney feature films from the studio’s first three decades. There are other Disney productions much more deserving of either the Treasures or Legacy brand and treatment that Song of the South would likely receive should it be released in the near future.
In the end the question becomes this: Is the desire by many to own Song of the South based on an actual love of the film, or simply the result of being denied access to it? Often times it’s not so much about the cookie as it is about the fact that Mom said “No!”
Originally published April 14, 2007.