|(primarily live action, some drawn animation)
Walt Disney envisioned it as a new form of entertainment-the blending of live actors with animated creatures and backdrops. The Disney animators had already experimented with the idea in The Reluctant Dragon, The Three Caballeros and a few others, but Song of the South brought a new mastery to the form.
The story of Song of the South draws from Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” folk tales, adding a live-action frame story set in Reconstruction-era Georgia. Young Johnny, upset over his parents’ splitting up, decides to run away. He doesn’t get very far before he comes across Uncle Remus, a former slave entertaining a group of children with his stories. When Remus learns of Johnny’s plans, he tells him he was thinking about running away himself. But while Remus packs, he starts to tell Johnny a story.
As he begins, the background turns into a bright, animated day, which Remus describes in the song “Zip-a-dee Doo-Dah.” The story concerns Br’er Rabbit, a canny sort who gets caught in the trap of Br’er Fox. When slow-witted Br’er Bear passes by, Rabbit convinces him he’s earning a pretty penny as a scarecrow. Naturally, Bear wants to take over and make some money of his own, and Br’er Rabbit is more than happy to oblige. Back in the world of live action, Remus gives the moral: “You can’t run away from trouble-there ain’t no place that far.”
Johnny returns home, but his mother doesn’t like his new friend Remus. Johnny makes another companion in poor girl Ginny, who’s being tormented by her bullying brothers. After another tale from Uncle Remus, “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” Johnny gets an idea of how to deal with the bullies. Later, Johnny invites Ginny to his birthday party, but those naughty boys push the poor girl into a mud puddle, ruining her dress. Uncle Remus finds Johnny and the crying girl and tells them the story of Br’er Rabbit’s laughing place, cheering both up.
Johnny’s mother finds the group together, and thinking the storyteller is a bad influence, she asks Remus never to speak to her boy again. Heartbroken, Uncle Remus decides to leave town. When Johnny sees his friend leaving, he runs across an open field to stop him. Unfortunately, that same field is home to a grazing bull, who charges Johnny and knocks him unconscious. The boy’s absent father returns to be at his ailing son’s side, but Johnny needs someone else’s cheer if he’s to recover.
When it came to theaters in 1946, Song of the South was an instant hit. The song “Zip-a-dee Doo-Dah” won an Academy Award, and James Baskett was given an Honorary Award for his portrayal of Uncle Remus. Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten, who played Johnny and Ginny, became Disney’s first contract players, going on to star in several subsequent films for the studio.
But even in its initial release, the film was not without its critics. Many organizations and individuals felt the film portrayed an idyllic view of slavery, glossing over the harsher realities. Disney defended the film, but after the turbulent civil rights clashes of the 1960’s, the studio announced it would be withdrawing Song of the South permanently in 1970.
Two years later, the studio reversed its view, and the film returned to theaters. Song of the South has been reissued a few times since then, but the sensitivity of the subject matter has kept Disney from releasing the film on video in the United States as of this writing.