Thursday, March 11, 2010

Song of the South: A Slightly Different Perspective

Editor's Note:  At this week's shareholder meeting, Disney CEO Robert Iger made a rather harsh and firm statement about the potential home video release status of Song of the South.  Hollywood Reporter noted that Iger called the film "antiquated' and “fairly offensive," and said there are no plans for releasing Song of the South on DVD.  I addressed previous statements by Iger concerning Song of the South in a commentary from 2007 that I am re-publishing today.  I cannot tell you the last time I watched Song of the South; I know that I have not viewed it in the three years since I wrote this commentary.  I remain as generally indifferent to it now as I did then.  I have retained the original comments to the post left by readers in 2007.

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.

21 comments:

Scott said...

Song of the South contains some of the finest animation ever produced from the Walt Disney Studios, and I think that is the main reason it is so highly sought after. The rest of the movie is pretty bland, but the animation is gold, and therefore I support a release.

Davelandweb said...

You hit the nail on the head; yes, Song of the South contains some excellent Disney animation, however, by keeping it in the vaults all these years, I would imagine that the studio has created a furor that will result in huge sales just for curiosity’s sake if nothing else. As for Gone With the Wind, viewing it now, I find the first half somewhat boring and dated; the second half is redemptive due to Vivien Leigh’s timeless performance that shows what one can accomplish with drive, determination, and a huge amount of charm. Thanks for posting your view on S.O.T.S.!

Kahl said...

There are two reasons I can't agree with anybody who says certain movies should be locked away.

1. There is only a small number of full-color, feature-length, beautifully-costumed, well-produced movies from 1946 to choose from. And this one has great songs to boot. Pretending all that artistry never happened is like Popes from medieval times hiding "obscene" Greek statues from the public. How does the public benefit?

2. Compare the offensive parts of "Song of the South" to the offensive parts of any big movie today. Personally, I would rather children see kindly Uncle Remus and realize he was a former slave, than have them exposed to the kick-in-the-crotch gags, fart jokes, and mildly foul language that one sees in almost every kid's movie out today. Obviously, tastes change. Imagine if fifty years from now we lock up movies from 2007 simply because Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, or Will Smith sound too much like they are speaking degrading ghetto slang. I'd like to think that my grandchildren would be able to watch "Mulan" if they want without censors who know better telling them they can't.

Jeff Kurtti said...

In your view about Song of the South, you revealed one of the great truths about why the perception of Disney has depreciated over the past few decades.

Absence.

The withholding of Disney films and attendant product and carefully releasing them on a seven-year (ish) cycle proved not only good business on the part of Roy O. Disney, it was culturally savvy, too. Creating a demand in the marketplace, as well as a sentimental spot in peoples hearts and memories, was a great part of building the emotional and proprietary way that people treated their relationship with the Company and its products.

There is not a whole lot of magic in the idea that "If people like Christmas once a year, they'll LOVE it if it happens once a month!"

It's the absence that builds the feelings.

Biblio Adonis said...

I agree, Jeff P.

I think that the backlash and the furor would do more damage to Disney than the sales or fan reaction.

Look at what is happening to Imus right now.

I wonder if people are so sentimental about Splash Mountain that they relate it directly to the movie.

Eh...but what do I know?

Cory Gross said...

This is a late comment, to be sure, but it can be blamed by your linking this to your piece on your dream Walt Disney Treasures sets...

I can certainly see where you're coming from, and it goes back to my theory on what the big problem with Song of the South really is. Having a copy myself, and enjoying it a fair bit, it seems to me that, ultimately, the issue is that it's a Disney film. It doesn't do anything different than any other Disney film... It's just the context this time around that makes that potentially problematic.

You seem to be verifying that theory in an oblique manner. In this case, the problem is that it is so undistinguished from other Disney films that it's not really worth all the fuss. I can see how, if it were readily available, it probably wouldn't be as intensely defended by Disney fans. Just being withheld seems to get fans' knickers in a bunch on principle alone, and the most politically correct thing to do amongst them is join in on bashing political correctness.

Still, I would definitely buy an official release should one be available, which I'm hoping with the debut of The Princess and the Frog. A Treasures set could easily do for the film, a documentary, Disneyland TV episodes like "A Tribute to Joel Chandler Harris", things on Splash Mountain and the John Henry short.

Amanda said...

I personally don't see what all the fuss is about. To me, Disney does more damage by keeping the film locked away. It makes them appear weak, and validate the people who say Disney is a racist. What is wrong with people making their own judgement after seeing a film? Do any of the tarted up girls Disney company trots out for us like Miley Cyrus send a better message to our children? Besides, most kids wouldn't even sit through that kind of film today because of this generation's lack of attention span. I imagine adults would be the main audience and frankly adults can make their own decisions about what "message" the film sends.

Tony said...

I like to put in perspective the big "fuss" over Song of the South by comparing it to the hundreds of movies made by Hollywood where Italians and Italian-Americans for example are repeatedly portrayed as gangsters. I've seen the films (some done very well) and I am not offended (nor am I criminal). The films are stories made for entertainment purposes. If I could let them roll off my back ... I am sure whoever Song of the South might offend - could do the same. Or here's a novel idea: simply choose not to watch. I for one would like to view Song of the South.

Charley Deppner said...

Obviously, Disney is not all that reluctant to "deny" the importance of this film, considering the popularity and proliferation of various "schwag" (notably the 60th Anniversary items sold in 2006 via the DisneyStore.com, and the popularity of the Splash Mountain attraction.

It seems bizarre to me Disney provides so much material and makes significant profit from something without "acknowledged" context.

Who are they fooling? They love the profits made from plush Brer Rabbits and post-ride photos from Splash Mountain as much as profits made from any other property.

They should openly embrace it and get it over with versus the "smarmy" manner in which the conduct "Song of the South" business now.

Jeffrey Pepper said...

Excellent points, Charley!

It is quite disingenuous of Iger to characterize the film as offensive, yet let the company exploit it for profit in other areas.

Cory Gross said...

That's just it... The perception is that it's the live-action story that's the problem, not the animated characters or sequences. If there was an effective way to excise those animated sequences and put them on DVD, I'm sure Disney would do it.

Jeffrey Pepper said...

'm not so sure Cory. I think there are issues that remain with the animated sequences, most especially the "tar baby." I have also heard comments from some individuals that they are also offended by the extreme voice characterizations of the various Brer characters. In terms of potential controversy, I don't believe the animated vignettes are completely baggage-free.

Keith said...

Here is my two cents. It is a movie about a time in our history when slavery was a normal thing. It is not saying that it still is, take it for what it is. A movie about a time that is no more. Why is that so hard.
The animation is awesome, and the music makes you smile.
We need to get over ourselves and view it for what is was made to be. A movie about a boy growing up in that time period.

Anonymous said...

I find the author’s comments sophomoric at best, disingenuous at worst. In an era when the typical American cannot properly identify major events in our country’s history, it is farcical to conclusively assert that the ‘stature’ of a classic film such as Gone with the Wind has diminished. No doubt the author would level the same charge at Vergil or Suetonius. In this politically charged era of form over substance where the individual peccadilloes of the few trump the constitutional right to free speech of the many I suppose we are lucky more films than Song of the South have not been “banned” by the pseudo-intellectual elites and their incessant finger-wagging.

Laura in AK said...

Backlash? Furor?? Are you folks watching the same movie I am (BTW-- I was gifted with a bootleg copy ages ago.. so the "cookie" argument does not hold... I want to see it on the big screen again!)

But I grew up (gasp!) white, in the 50's & 60's and Uncle Remus waS and Is a hero of mine. The man had little in the way of education but a WONDERFUL intellect.

Bring the film back, have Whoopie or Morgan Freeman (how appropriate a surname to see here!) to do an intro explaining that this is POST slavery and "notice Uncle Remus was leaving? Not running away to be free?".... and give all kids someone to look up to again who is not a sports or music figure.

Jeffrey Pepper said...

Anonymous--

Stringing big words together does not ultimately create credibility. In this case, your carefully considered language is nothing but a smokescreen for a laughable defense of a film (Gone with the Wind) that has in fact faded from the popular culture. Comparing the film to Vergil and Suetonius is simply ludicrous. It is a comparison that has no context, let alone merit.

Simple translation: You think Gone With the Wind is still a big deal; I don't. If you want to fall on your sword over Gone With the Wind, have at it.

Just to note--incessant finger-wagging is another form of free speech expression. It's interesting that you find such free speech offensive when it originates from pseudo-intellectual elites who do not share your point of view.

I also have no problem attaching my name to this comment.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I enjoyed "Soung of the south" yes it is slow in some part and there are lots of movies today that have undertones to it, so whats the big deal. I say release it on DVD and let the public decide if they want to buy it or not. No one is pulling anyones arms about buying any movie. If one does not want to buy it and has issues with it then leave it on the shelf for the next person intrested in owning the movie. And its Disney for crying out loud. Let the disney fans have Song of the south in Our collection!!!!!!

M. J. David said...

I believe the discussion has veered off course. This isn't a matter of whether or not Song of the South is a good film or not. That doesn't matter. What DOES matter is that Song of the South, good or bad, is a part of film history. The film was released over 60 years ago...and here we are, still discussing it! That fact, alone, is indicative of the film's importance. It is a culturally significant film that is demonstrative of the era in which it was created. And, though it wasn't the first to do so, it is a ground-breaking achievement in combining live-action film with animation. Bluntly, Disney does a great disservice by keeping the film locked up in a vault and pretending it doesn't exist (and wishing it never did!) Instead, they should recognize and embrace the film - warts and all - as an important piece of Walt Disney's legacy. They should openly acknowledge the controversial nature of the film...and use it to educate and inform. Hiding from the past doesn't erase it - and censorship...even well-intentioned self-censorship...does the public no good. I'm startled by your seemingly lackadaisical perspective, Mr. Pepper. Song of the South is an important, historical film...and you should be utilizing your considerable writing skills, and most excellent forum, to demand the film's release. This issue is much more important than you seem to think.

Jeffrey Pepper said...

M. J. David--

That was a very respectful but pointed chastisement and I very much appreciate the polite manner in which you delivered it. I concede that perhaps my tone on this subject does reflect the "seemingly lackadaisical perspective" you describe. But I would still like to direct you to some excerpts from my original post:

" . . .Song of the South ultimately become classified more as film history than timeless entertainment."

" . . .I certainly would welcome a DVD that featured a restored Song of the South and included comprehensive supplemental material. . ."

We are not in disagreement on any of the very well-stated points you make in your comment. I 100% believe that Song of the South deserves to be released for all the very reasons you cite.

I have just grown very weary of the film being elevated to this near-mythological status by virtue of the very controversy that ironically, the Disney Company and Iger himself continue to cultivate by denying its release.

I also tire of people somehow equating the withholding of SOTS with some type of violation of free speech rights. It is a bizarre and and totally unfounded correlation. Nobody's rights are in anyway being violated by the Disney company withholding SOTS. They own the film, it is their right to decide what they will or will not do with it. As I noted in a prior comment, I find it odd that many SOTS advocates wish to stifle those individuals who are critical (by way of their own free speech rights) of the film's now less than culturally accepted undertones.

But to your point--it is self-censorship on Disney's part and it is both cowardly and disingenuous.

As to making 2719 Hyperion an online advocate for SOTS--I can demand all I want, but unfortunately I am not the model of the consumer that Disney appears to be considering when it comes to this particular film.

M.J. David said...

I appreciate your response. Having read many of your postings, it's exactly as I hoped for. I think you said it best: Disney and Iger's self-censorship is cowardly and disingenuous.

I guess I hoped that when Disney bought out PIXAR and put the brilliant John Lasiter in charge of the animation department, smarter heads would prevail and things would change. I even took the opportunity to write Mr. Lasiter directly, urging him to take up the matter of SOTS.

I tried to appeal to the animator/filmmaker in him, and posited to him this scenario: UP has come under some scrutiny for its gun play: specifically, the scene where the evil old man, Charles Muntz, fires his rifle several times directly AND deliberately at the young scout, Russell, who is in real, serious peril. It's an amazingly tense and violent scene.

Guns are rarely fired at children in live-action films, let alone in animated "family" films. In fact, it's become such a hot-button, politically charged issue that Steven Spielberg actually "self-censored" his own masterpiece, E.T., by having the guns (held by the government agents) digitally altered to appear as cell phones and walkie-talkies. And they never even FIRED the guns at the children; they merely held them!

With this I mind, I asked Mr. Lasiter to imagine a time, say 50 years from now, when all guns have been rendered illegal (not a preposterous premise, I think, considering the current political climate), and violence toward children - even in film - is no longer tolerated.

I asked him how he would feel if, under those circumstances, Disney decided to pull the Academy Award-winning UP from public release and had it locked up in a vault somewhere.

Would he think that was appropriate, or would he be dismayed?

For my effort, I received a standard form letter - complete with official "Disney" letterhead -thanking me for my concern and basically stating that Mr. Lasiter hopes I will continue to enjoy Disney/PIXAR entertainment for many years to come.

So much for that.

Someday, in the not-too-distant future, SOTS will fall into the Public Domain and this will all be a moot issue. Perhaps that's been Disney's plan all along. I mean...sheesh! There are at least two webites, dedicated to SOTS, that sell pirated copies of the film...and Disney - the company that protects its name and image more than any other - does nothing to stop them! They completely ignore it because, seemingly, if they did interfere, it would bring attention to an issue that clearly wish would just go away. Amazing.

Imagine if there were websites selling pirated copies of Snow White! They'd be shut down immediately!

Anyway...excellent discussion! And great website!

Anonymous said...

M.J. David, maybe you should ask Mr. Lassetter those same questions next time you see him in person, such as at the 2011 D23 Expo or any possible earlier occasion.

Just a little advice. That's all.