I Love Splash Mountain. It’s Time to Change It.
Some regular visitors to “The Happiest Place on Earth” are not so happy.
That is not surprising. A certain subset of hardcore Disney fans are fiercely protective of the company’s history, both good and bad. Others are ultra-sensitive about any perceived concession to notions of diversity or sensitivity in any facet of modern life. So the decision Disney announced this week — retheming its popular Splash Mountain attraction around The Princess and the Frog and retiring its characters from Disney’s notorious Song of the South — angered both groups.
A Twitter thread of the “worst” reactions catalogues several recurring themes in the complaints — such as the idea that insists that whatever problems exist in Song of the South do not exist in Splash Mountain, which features the cartoon characters from the 1946 film, including Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Bear, but not the humans like Uncle Remus. The argument: “Splash deals exclusively with the cartoon characters.”
That’s certainly true; while Disney made a questionable decision turning Song of the South into Splash Mountain, they developed it in the mid-1980s — at almost the exact same time the company began withholding the film from public view — and they did try to mitigate its more objectionable content by avoiding any of the racist stereotypes in the original text. Stripped of context, Splash Mountain is a lovely, charming ride. Guests board a log that floats past scenes of Br’er Rabbit and company set to Song of the South’s famous music, including the beloved “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Even some Disney fans who would not defend Song of the South have publicly defended the ride, claiming that at this point so few people have even seen the original movie that Br’er Rabbit and the rest are known more for the ride than the film anyway. So what’s the harm in keeping it?
I’ve ridden Splash Mountain numerous times at Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida. It’s a classic of its kind; immersive, sweet, and surprisingly thrilling. It’s got great music, and it cools you off on a hot Orlando afternoon without getting you soaking wet. The ride, in and of itself, is not offensive.
In and of itself. The more defenses I read of Splash Mountain, the more they remind me of defenses of Song of the South. The movie (which I wrote about at length a few years ago here) is not as flagrantly or risibly racist as D.W. Griffith’s infamous silent epic The Birth of a Nation. Song of the South’s Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett, is treated respectfully — almost reverently. The film doesn’t mock its Black characters. This is, after all, a Disney movie.
The problem, as I wrote in 2016, “isn’t necessarily what Song of the South depicts, but what it chooses not to depict”:
The words ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’ are never uttered, and the specifics of the economic relationship between the blacks and whites (Master and slave? Employer and servant?) are left deliberately vague. By stripping out any concrete details of time and place, Disney essentially turned the plantation system into a ludicrous utopia where blacks and whites live in harmony — a harmony where the only thing that’s clear is that the blacks are inferior and servile to the whites, but are content to work the fields anyway.
Again, all of these ideas are unspoken, tucked away in subtext. They’re easy to ignore — if the viewer wants to ignore them. That’s how you get responses to the Splash Mountain retheming announcement like the one I read on Facebook just yesterday that defended Song of the South thusly: “It is a very cheerful film and Uncle Remus is very good friend with the children and helps them see life in a different way.”
In other words, the movie is as harmless as "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" — except that classic Disney tune was inspired by an old folk song with a name so objectionable I refuse to reprint it here. That’s Song of the South, and the entire classical Disney approach, in a nutshell: Wholesome, inoffensive comfort food that draws upon our collective feelings about a more innocent, idealized past. But perhaps some subjects, such as the race relations in Civil War-era America, shouldn’t be turned into comfort food.
I don’t believe Disney should lock Song of the South away in its famous “Disney Vault.” Hiding it allows Disney to pretend its own corporate history is as simple and happy as the film’s portrait of Reconstruction. I would prefer an approach similar to how Warner Bros. recently addressed including Gone With the Wind on HBO Max, with an introduction from film scholar Jacqueline Stewart that adds valuable historical and critical context.
One point Stewart makes during her Gone With the Wind introduction feels particularly relevant to Song of the South and Splash Mountain. “[Gone With the Wind]’s treatment of this world through a lens of nostalgia,” Stewart says of Victor Fleming’s blockbuster, “denies the horrors of slavery, as well as its legacy of racial inequality ... The film’s style, plot, and legendary status are so extravagant, in fact, that for many viewers its racial politics are hardly noticed.”
Which brings us back to Splash Mountain. It depicts an innocent, idealized version of Song of the South — which was already an innocent, idealized version of the same period featured in Gone With the Wind. On Splash Mountain, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear trap Br’er Rabbit in a beehive and toss him in a briar patch. In the scenes from Song of the South that inspired that section of the ride, they trick Br’er Rabbit with a Tar-Baby. Certainly the version in the ride itself is less disrespectful. That doesn’t change where it came from. Splash Mountain riders who only care about their own memories of the attraction are using that same “lens of nostalgia,” and the ride’s handsome style, plot, and legendary status, to overlook the material’s troubling elements.
That’s why, as much as I’ve enjoyed Splash Mountain in the past, I think it’s beyond time to remove the Song of the South material. If we’re being totally honest, the last time I went on Splash Mountain, I thought the animatronics were starting to look a little creaky anyway. Jacqueline Stewart also says that “classic films have been and continue to be a major influence on popular views of history.” If theme park rides work the same way, then the Princess and the Frog version of Splash Mountain will not only bring a much-needed update to a fun ride, it will have a positive influence, too.
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