Disney’s Song of the South has long been deemed too racist for public release. But even as criticism of the 1946 musical mounted, the entertainment conglomerate continued to profit from Splash Mountain, its beloved Song of the South-inspired log flume ride, which debuted at Disney theme parks in 1989.
That will soon change. Last week, Disney announced plans to drop Song of the South references from Splash Mountain rides at Disneyland in California and Magic Kingdom Park in Florida.
The attractions will be “completely reimagined” as celebrations of 2009 film The Princess and the Frog. The animated musical is set in New Orleans and stars Anika Noni Rose as Tiana, Disney’s first black princess.
“[T]he retheming of Splash Mountain is of particular importance today,” says Disney in a statement. “The new concept is inclusive—one that all of our guests can connect with and be inspired by, and it speaks to the diversity of the millions of people who visit our parks each year.”
We're thrilled to share Splash Mountain at @Disneyland & @WaltDisneyWorld will be completely reimagined with a new story inspired by an all-time favorite @DisneyAnimation film, “The Princess and the Frog.” Learn about what Imagineers have in development: https://t.co/HyKfdDSH3j pic.twitter.com/DV6476KAVX— Disney Parks (@DisneyParks) June 25, 2020
Disney’s decision arrives amid weeks of protests against racism and police brutality, as well as increased calls for corporations to reckon with their roles in perpetuating racism. Recently, more than 20,000 people signed a petition asking Disney to change Splash Mountain’s theme.
“While the ride is considered a beloved classic [its] history and storyline are steeped in extremely problematic and stereotypical racist tropes,” the petition stated.
Combining live-action and animated elements, Song of the South centers on Johnny, a young white boy who learns life lessons from a formerly enslaved man named Uncle Remus (played by James Baskett). The film also features Hattie McDaniel, the first black person to win an Oscar; in 1940, she took home the Best Supporting Actress trophy for her portrayal of “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind.
Best known for the song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the movie paints a rosy picture of a post-Civil War era Georgia plantation. Black servants speak in stereotypical vernacular and are portrayed as subservient to white plantation owners in an overtly racist, romanticized depiction of Southern life, writes Allegra Frank for Vox.
Song of the South debuted at the racially segregated Fox Theatre in Atlanta on November 12, 1946. While some African American reviewers praised the film, others criticized its depictions of black characters. Walter White, then-executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), sent telegrams to newspapers arguing that the movie “helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery” and “gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts,” according to the Oakland Museum of California.
Disney rereleased Song of the South multiple times in the decades following its premiere. But the film’s 1986 theatrical run proved to be its last public outing, and after that year, it remained locked away in the so-called “Disney Vault.”
In March, Disney executive chairman Bob Iger confirmed that Song of the South would not be released on the company’s new streaming service, Disney+, because it was “not appropriate in today’s world,” reported Tom Grater for Deadline.
South of the South is one of many Disney films with overtly racist themes: Take “What Made the Red Man Red?,” a song from Peter Pan (1953) that contains racist depictions of indigenous people, and Dumbo’s Jim Crow character (1941), which employs derogatory stereotypes of African Americans, as just two examples. These films and other problematic titles appear on Disney+ with a disclaimer tag that states they “may contain outdated cultural depictions.”
The planned overhaul of the two Splash Mountain rides will likely cost tens of millions of dollars, reports Brooks Barnes for the New York Times. At this time, there are no plans to change the Splash Mountain ride in Tokyo Disneyland, which is licensed and operated by an outside organization.
Splash Mountain was first conceived in 1983, according to film critic Karina Longworth, who produced a six-part series on Song of the South for her classic Hollywood podcast, “You Must Remember This.” Designers originally planned to name it “Zip-A-Dee River Run”—a nod to Song of the South’s Oscar-winning song—but later changed the name to “Splash Mountain” in a vague allusion to a 1983 film starring Tom Hanks.
The ride makes no reference to Uncle Remus. Instead, it tells the story of the musical’s animal characters, including Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox, as Scottie Andrew notes for CNN.
Splash Mountain’s connection to the controversial film ended up being “invisible to most riders,” explains Longworth. “At a time when Disney was making most of its money from home video and theme parks, this savvy decision was made to salvage the least controversial aspects of Song of the South and funnel them into a ride—leaving what was left of the film, the overtly racist stuff, behind.”