Song of the South
A little while back, I had a full shelf in my room of Disney classics, or at least, those that I liked most. Of course, the usual suspects were lined up on that shelf- Fantasia, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast; some less-known Disney masterpieces were there too, like The Fox and The Hound. Still, my collection felt incomplete, somehow. In particular, I can think of one film that deserved a little golden throne on that shelf: Song of the South. Sadly, it still isn?t on American shelves, and probably won?t be for a little while.
Disney has withheld on releasing the film for a handful of reasons, mainly, issues of political correctness and depictions of the black cast in the film. But I don?t see a racist frame in the whole reel of that movie. I just see a Disney classic masterpiece, a sparkling warm-hearted story highlighted by resplendent acting and incredible animation.
The plot is a simple and homey relic of the era when Disney hadn?t quite fallen in love with grandiose plotlines involving at the least an entire town and a minimum of one prince/princess. Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) is a rich white southern boy set ambiguously recently following the end of the civil war, and of slavery (though the movie does well not to bring either issue up at all). Upon arriving for a ?visit? to his grandmother?s house with his parents, his parents reveal that the visit is to be permanent: for reasons left vague Johnny?s father leaves Johnny and his mother, Sally (Ruth Warrick), at the grandmother?s plantation, presumably never to return. While on the plantation, Johnny befriends the local underdogs, namely, a little black boy that serves for depthless comic relief named Toby (played by Glenn Leedy), a girl he begins to care for, despite her being- well- the white trash of the time, whose name is Ginny (Luana Patten) and, by far most importantly, the blissful black bard Uncle Remus (James Baskett).
Johnny is constantly distraught over his father?s flight, and despite minor distractions that cheer him up (Ginny and Toby), other minor conflicts, such as repeated fights with Ginny?s obnoxious brothers, only worsen Johnny?s mood; the grandmother (Lucile Watson) aptly summarizes the situation for Johnny?s mother by stating that Johnny needs his father, period. In his father?s wake, Johnny befriends Uncle Remus, mainly through the vastly entertaining and colorful stories he tells, which in the movie are played as cartoon shorts juxtaposed in between lengths of real-life footage. After a plot twist at the end heightens the conflict to the point where it (and Johnny?s bones) snap and lay broken, waiting for restoration and resolution, the duo of Uncle Remus (and his stories) and Johnny?s father (Erik Rolf) appear by Johnny?s side as the deus ex machina, and all is well in the humble southern plantation again.
The child actors are, as essentially all child actors in such simple movies are, highly annoying. The facial contortions of the six-year-olds on the silver screen trying to squeeze out a tear practically elicit guffaws, but that?s to be expected- both of child actors expected to play such heavy roles and of the acting at the time. Though most of the main characters, the children can be overlooked in terms of the movie?s overall acting. The excellent portrayal of Uncle Remus via the highly talented Baskett more than carries the dead weight of the children. Actually, Baskett?s stellar work in Song of the South almost carries the whole film on its own. The Remus character is truly the centerpiece of the movie (the movie was originally to be titled Uncle Remus). He is contagiously jovial, and seemingly supremely sage in the wisdom he imparts via his stories (though we see that his stories get him in trouble with Sally, the resolution reveals that the real problem was Sally, not Remus? stories), not to mention the very source of the panacean and entertaining cartoon-ified Br?er Rabbit tales which ultimately manifest themselves in the plot, later saving Johnny?s life and erasing the line between Remus? tales and Johnny?s world.
The tales could be a movie on their own, and if they were, I?d give them five stars without hesitation. The actual animation, despite being half a century old, is simply sublime. Character design is beautiful and each character, from Br?er Rabbit the tricky underdog to Br?er Fox the dastardly deceiver to Br?er Bear the bumbling titan, has a gorgeously painted character with a hilarious personality and wild antics. Soundtrack, while cheesy and overdramatic in the real-life footage, is superb in the cartoon shorts- who hasn?t danced to Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah? The music and characters from these shorts have survived unscathed through to this very day with constant cameos in Disney movies and renewed re-releases of the memorable and amazingly catchy songs: Br?er Bear even cameos in Disney?s latest animated feature, The Lion King 1 ?. There is no question to the prodigious quality of Disney?s cartoon renditions of Joel Chandler Harris? Uncle Remus folktales. Coupled with Baskett?s acting, which earned him an honorary Academy Award, the rest of the film is almost inconsequential.
The film lacks any racist undertones that would make it inappropriate for its target audience: children. The film itself treats the audience as a child, simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing, naturally. The plot is nothing special, but is a good storyline for a Disney movie. Cinematography is fine- nothing great, nothing sub-par. As a Disney movie I?d give it five stars. As a movie, period, it still wins at least four stars. If only Disney could still work this kind of magic.
[i]MOTHER NATURE IS A COWARD MOTHER NATURE IS A WHORE[/I]