Mar 27, 2012

Bad Movies I Love Part 32

Most movie goers of my generation have never seen nor heard of "Song of the South". Yes the Disney film that the company doesn't want you to see, but for whatever reason will never let you forget, is one that most everyone under sixty has never laid eyes on. The last time I saw it was in the early eighties when it made it's last run in the theatres. I recall liking it, but up until this weekend I could tell you little of what I saw.

Thanks to the magic of Youtube and it's less than moral users, my folks and I decided to watch the classic film every one's forgotten about. What we found was both surprising in ways I never imagined. I was expecting a racist film on par with "The Birth of a Nation" or the infamous Warner Bros Censcored 11, but instead was treated to something that may be better classified as naive rather than outright hateful. I expected a misunderstood classic that was unfairly treated, but I found a movie designed for little children that can drag. I expected at the very least a charming tale that fit the strong narratives that Disney was known for, but I saw a film that was uneven, poorly paced, and had some characters, even the main ones, that are less than exciting.

The movie is a simple one that has too many stories for it's own good. It starts with live action and takes place in Reconstruction era Georgia, where a young boy named Johnny is being taken to a rural plantation to live with his grandmother and mother while his father, for reasons unknown, decides to leave them to do something, like work or check on his other family that no one knows about. Regardless he leaves and young Johnny decides to run away to catch up with him. On his way he meets Uncle Remus, who says he will run away with him, but sits him down and tells him the story of Brer Rabbit.

This is where the movie finally takes off. Uncle Remus then breaks into Zip-a-dee-doo-dah and is suddenly set in an animated world. Yes, this is where the song you've no doubt heard a lot when you were young is from. The story of Brer Rabbit then takes place, he leaves his home as he thinks it sucks, for whatever reason, then encounters the jive talking Brer Fox and Brer Bear, who want to eat the animated protagonist. Lessons are learned and little Johnny goes back to live with his mother.

Live action takes place again, and Johnny learns a couple of other life lessons, and his mother is wary of the relationship with him and the paternal Uncle Remus, for reasons unexplained. As this is a Disney film, a near tragedy occurs, but all is right with the world soon after and everything is satisfactual.

The film was probably made for very young children, and for that it'll work, but it doesn't resonate with the older viewers. The live action sequences are incredibly dull, and little Johnny has very little personality. The three stories within the film gives it an uneven feel. It may have worked better if Uncle Remus started the film with some exposition, and the rest of the movie used the animated Brers to tell one long narrative.

So why do I love this film? Well when it's not sucking, it's incredibly charming. The blend of live action and animation is very impressive, and the performances are very good, most notably by James Baskett as the magical negro, err, I mean Uncle Remus. The music is entertaining and has obviously stood the test of time, where the film hasn't. It also has nostalgia, which is subjective I know, but after watching the movie the question that begs to be asked is why is this so hard to find?

Disney could've released this with a disclaimer about how our cultural history has embarrassing points, as Warner Brothers has in the past. Children could've learned something from our civil rights history, and how far we have come with our portrayal of African-Americans, but Disney, under pressure from the NAACP and others, decided to sweep this under the rug, but yet oddly, built a theme park ride dedicated to the film's characters, release the song Zip-a-dee-doo-dah at every chance they can, and gives references to it in books, stuffed animals, and various other merchandise. Still this is no more offensive than the already mentioned "The Birth of a Nation", "Gone with the Wind", "The Jazz Singer", or even "The Little Rascals". Granted it's not the technical marvel that is "The Birth of a Nation", nor is it the sweeping epic of "Gone with the Wind", but it does have it's place in film history as being the first to seamlessly blend live action with animation. For that alone people should have the choice to see it.

"The central drama is only intermittently successful, and not only because any rational modern viewer will be seriously put off by the jolly racial ignorance of it all... but its heart is in the right place." - Tim Brayton

1 comment:

Harvey1701 said...

I agree with your assessment of the film's ability, and inability, to entertain. I also wish Disney would just release it already. Having also seen this film, I must admit that I really don't find much, if anything, racist about it. All I saw was a boy wanting to run away and an old man watching after him and sharing stories. I know some have denounced the film as insensitive and racist, claiming it depicts African-Americans as enjoying living as slaves. Well, they aren't slaves, but never once does the film show that they enjoy their lives as second-class citizens during Reconstruction, either. It's simply about a very good-hearted man named Uncle Remus trying to keep a boy from running away. That's the story the film is telling. If people want a film that makes a statement on the plight of slaves, or freed slaves in the South, there are plenty of films out there that do this quite accurately. But for crying out loud, this is Disney (and 1940s Disney at that!) I mean, come on, look at the WB short "The Ducktators". That film is appalling, yet WB released it (with appropriate remarks commenting on how we can learn from our mistakes by admitting them, and not hiding from them or pretending they never happened!) Where Song of the South is concerned, Disney should just grow a pair.