Song of the South in a Changing Culture: A Case for the Retheming of Splash Mountain
I love the Disney parks. I probably always will. They have been a source of joy for me for my entire life and now I get to share that same joy with my child every time we visit. If you go and visit any of the parks around the world, one of the easiest things to deduce is Disney’s grasp on storytelling. Classic attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion and even some of the newer experiences like Flight of Passage and Rise of the Resistance are a testament to how to masterfully tell a story in a theme park setting.
Splash Mountain falls under this category for me. I even recently listed it as one of my favorite attractions in the history of Walt Disney World. On the surface, there’s a lot to love. You have a lovable main character in Br’er Rabbit escaping the clutches of Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. You travel through one of the most elaborate scenic rides for any Disney park, with multiple animatronics setting a clear story both visually and audibly through character dialogue and a great musical score. This all culminates with a fifty foot drop in your log flume, escaping alongside Br’er Rabbit and floating through the massive steamboat scene to the tune of one of the most recognizable Disney songs in Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.
With everything going on in our current social climate, I thought it important to reevaluate this attraction and further examine the source material behind it. Having done that, I believe Splash Mountain’s existence in both Walt Disney World and Disneyland should be removed for the following reasons…
Not Everything is Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah
The first thing we have to take a look at is why does this ride exist? Who are these characters and where did they come from? The characters of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear were in existence long before they were brought to life on the silver screen (we’ll discuss this later.)
In 1946, Disney released the live-action/animated feature, Song of the South. As the decades since its release have passed, it continues to be looked upon with a critical eye. Disney has been no stranger to controversy with racially insensitive elements in their previous films. Dumbo, Fantasia, Peter Pan, and even some of their earlier shorts like Mickey’s Mellerdrammer, which in all honesty, should be forever purged from the face of the earth, have either viewer warning statements before them on Disney+ or have been heavily edited for content. Song of the South, although re-released to theaters on several occasions, has never had a complete version of the film released for home video purchase in the United States out of fear of backlash due to the controversy surrounding it.
There is probably a large portion of the population who has never seen Song of the South or is unfamiliar with why the film is criticized in the manner in which it is. The issue with the film is not what is said but what is implied. The movie takes place in the Post-Civil War era on a plantation somewhere in Georgia. Most of the plot revolves around the relationship between a 7-year-old Caucasian boy named Johnny and a black man named Uncle Remus, who works on the plantation that Johnny's grandmother owns. Through the course of the film, Uncle Remus tells Johnny stories of Br’er Rabbit and introduces him to songs like How Do You Do?, Everybody’s Got a Laughing Place, and Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah...all of which have variations featured on Splash Mountain.
Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah is probably the most controversial of these. The lyrics themselves set up a false reality to the viewer of the film.
My, oh, my, what a wonderful day
Plenty of sunshine headin' my way
Mister Bluebird's on my shoulder
It's the truth, it's "actch'll"
Everything is "satisfactch'll"
Wonderful feeling, wonderful day!"
Surrounded by birds, butterflies, and flowers, Uncle Remus belts out this now infamous song, beaming from ear-to-ear. Life on the plantation is a utopia. Every day is a wonderful day as a sharecropper living on the plantation. Here lies the film’s biggest problem. At no point in the movie is a specific time period given. You can only deduce the setting by the clothing that the characters wear. So for the average viewer, the setting can be easily mistaken for a time before the abolition of slavery. It is a slap in the face to those who actually had to live their lives under the ownership of a slaveholder on a plantation. It was the furthest thing from the “sunshine and rainbows” way of life presented by Uncle Remus.
Disney was smart in excluding the plot of Song of the South and any of the Uncle Remus stories in the design of Splash Mountain. So if the controversial elements are taken out of the ride, what is the issue? There are issues within the source material itself.
Br’er Rabbit and the Tar-Baby
It is important to note the historical significance of the Uncle Remus stories. Penned by Joel Chandler Harris in the late 1800s, they were a series of folktales told by slaves on plantations during the Civil War era. Chandler himself spent a portion of his youth working as a printer’s assistant on a plantation and heard these stories first-hand. As an adult, he decided to publish them in the voice of Uncle Remus.
In all, 185 of these tales were published. Although they are viewed as some of the most accurate tellings of those plantation stories, which have roots in African folklore, Harris decided to write these stories in what is referred to as eye dialect. Eye dialect is when the writer chooses to use nonstandard spelling in order to draw attention to the pronunciation of words. The harshest criticism of these works is that Harris chose to write in this prose. Even though he thought it added to the authenticity of the stories, the choice to do this has been the heaviest source of criticism over the years. Eye dialect is found in all of his stories. An example of this writing style is “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story.”
"Didn't the fox never catch the rabbit, Uncle Remus?" asked the little boy the next evening.
"He come mighty nigh it, honey, sho's you born--Brer Fox did. One day atter Brer Rabbit fool 'im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox went ter wuk en got 'im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun w'at he call a Tar-Baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby en he sot 'er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwine ter be. En he didn't hatter wait long, nudder, kaze bimeby here come Brer Rabbit pacin' down de road--lippity-clippity, clippity -lippity--dez ez sassy ez a jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. Brer Rabbit come prancin' 'long twel he spy de Tar-Baby, en den he fotch up on his behime legs like he wuz 'stonished. De Tar Baby, she sot dar, she did, en Brer Fox, he lay low…”
This particular Uncle Remus story is one of the most controversial. Although the meaning of the term “tar-baby” is generally defined as a problematic situation that is only aggravated by additional involvement with it, the imagery used in illustrations and even in the segment found in Song of the South, has led the term to be considered a racial slur in many contexts. This is most likely why in the television rebroadcasts of the movie, the Tar-Baby segment was completely removed from the film. In the design of Splash Mountain, the scene where Br’er Rabbit is caught by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear was altered from the source material by having Br’er Rabbit caught in a beehive instead of the tar-baby.
So with the literary and film context fleshed out a little bit, what do we do? What can be changed?
Retheme Splash Mountain
Is this a huge undertaking? Yes. Would it take a long time and put one of the most popular attractions in the park in an extended refurbishment period? Yes, but in the end, I think it would be worth it. Some may ask, “Well, what do you retheme it to?” Honestly, I don’t know. They have an entire library of movies and characters that they could pull from. There have been petitions to have it changed to Princess and the Frog. I would entertain the thought of having a Mickey themed attraction based on an original concept that fits the theming of Frontierland. If there was anything that I learned from watching The Imagineering Story on Disney+ it is that Disney Imagineering can do anything. Their foundation is built on creating the impossible and adapting over time to incorporate new ideas and technologies into something that is incredible.
Change is in the very fabric of Disney itself. Their history proves it. Racial stereotypes were obviously a problem in the first part of their history when it came to their theatrical and animated entertainment. In recent years, there has been a shift. The introduction of characters like Tiana, Moana, Elena, Doc McStuffins, and others are all steps in the right direction. The changing of “The Redhead” character in Pirates of the Caribbean is proof that they are willing to listen to change. Now it’s time to take the next step and do what’s right for the future of the parks. The characters represented in Splash Mountain are no longer fit for theme park entertainment.