Welcome to Jim Hill Media - Entertainment News : Theme Parks Movies Television

Is Disney being a Dumbo when it comes to "Song of the South" ?

Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

Is Disney being a Dumbo when it comes to "Song of the South" ?

Rate This
  • Comments 38

You know what I find bizarre? A week ago today at the annual meeting of shareholders, Bob Iger reaffirmed his commitment to keep "Song of the South" in the Disney Vault. Saying flat-out that it wouldn't be in the best interests of the Company's shareholders to make this Academy Award-winning film available for purchase on Blu-ray and DVD because " ... it was made at a different time."

Image courtesy of Profiles in History & Van Eaton Galleries

And - yet - when I popped "Tangled" into my computer yesterday, what did I see? A sneak preview for the 70th anniversary edition of "Dumbo."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So let me see if I understand this? A live-action feature from 1946 featuring kindly old Uncle Remus gets shoved to the back of the Disney Vault, while a feature-length cartoon from 1941 which features a character called (I kid you not) Jim Crow ...

Image courtesy of Profiles in History & Van Eaton Galleries

... gets fully restored and released in high definition? Doesn't that seem a trifle hypocritical to you?

Okay. I get it. The 1930s & 1940s were a far less politically correct time. Which is why the artists at Disney Studios felt it was perfectly fine back then to dress the Big Bad Wolf as a stereotypical Jewish peddler in the original version of "The Three Little Pigs."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Or why - back when Disney was initially developing an animated version of "Peter Pan" back in the late 1930s - the Studio's storymen thought it would be a scream if Captain Hook have a Chinese cook working for him that had big buck teeth, squinty eyes and a long pigtail.

Image courtesy of Profiles in History & Van Eaton Galleries

To give the artists & animators at Disney some credit, when the Studio finally released its animated version of "Peter Pan" to theaters in February of 1953, that Chinese Cook character was nowhere to be seen. On the other hand, Native Americans still get steamed whenever they see this film's "What Makes the Red Man Red?" sequence.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, Disney did become somewhat more enlightened when it came to issues of race and stereotyping. Which is why the Studio began doing things like trimming "Fantasia" 's Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony sequence. So that that pair of Nubian Zebra girls ...

Image courtesy of Profiles in History & Van Eaton Galleries

... who attended to Bacchus wouldn't be quite so obvious ...

Image courtesy of Profiles in History & Van Eaton Galleries

... while poor little Sunflower, the servant centaurette who attended to all of the other "ladies" in her herd, wound up being cut out of this motion picture entirely.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, one might argue that - these days - the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. I can remember talking with Disney animators back in the early 1990s while they were working on "Pocahontas" ...

Image courtesy of Profiles in History & Van Eaton Galleries

... And these guys complained to me about all of the notes that they were getting from Studio execs about how the Native Americans in this movie had to be depicted as being good & kind & noble & handsome. With the end result being that these executives' good intentions basically sucked any sense of spontaneous fun & humor out of this animated feature.

But at least there were Native Americans in "Pocahontas." Contrast that with Disney's "Tarzan" ..

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... where you get to see Tarzan, Jane, the great white hunter Clayton, kindly old Professor Porter, gorillas, elephants, baboons, birds and jaguars ... But not a single member of Africa's indigenous people.

Okay. I know. The easiest way to avoid offending someone is by doing nothing. Or - in the case of long-ago offenses - by just pretending that something potentially offensive or controversial never actually happened. Like - say -- that handful of early Mickey Mouse cartoons where Disney's corporate symbol performed in blackface.

Image courtesy of Profiles in History
& Van Eaton Galleries

But then the question becomes where do you draw the line? Do you do what Disney did in the 1940s (which is actually go back in and reanimate the Jewish peddler scene in "The Three Little Pigs" so that this scene in that short is no longer so offensive) ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... every time the Studio gets an angry letter from someone who's upset about the way their particular religious or ethnic group was depicted in a Disney movie, short or TV show? If that were really the case, the Italian American Anti-Defamation League would have had Stromboli ...

Image courtesy of Profiles in History & Van Eaton Galleries

... removed from "Pinocchio" decades ago?

But how do you folks feel about what Walt Disney Studios is up to these days? Does it bother you that Bre'er Rabbit remains tied up in the Disney Vault ...

Image courtesy of Profiles in History & Van Eaton Galleries

... while Jim Crow and his feathered friends from "Dumbo" continue to fly free?

Image courtesy of Profiles in History & Van Eaton Galleries

If you do have an issue with this somewhat hypocritical situation, what would you like Disney to do differently with its library of films?

FYI: Many of the pieces of animation art that were used to illustrate today's article are actually items that will be up for bid in the auction that Profiles in History and Van Eaton Galleries will be holding in May. To learn more about this once-in-a-lifetime event, please click on this link.

Image courtesy of Profiles in History
& Van Eaton Galleries

Your thoughts?

Blog - Post Feedback Form
Your comment has been posted.   Close
Thank you, your comment requires moderation so it may take a while to appear.   Close
Leave a Comment
  • * Please enter your name
  • * Please enter a comment
  • Post
  • I think Disney would have no problem releasing it similar to how they released "Victory Through Air Power" in the Treasures set, including a DVD extra discussing the era in which it was developed. With some discussion about how minorities were depicted at the time, or some info behind the animators or story-men making the feature, could put it into perspective. Yes, I do think that Peter Pan & Dumbo are equally offensive, but Song of the South remains a flagbearer for ethnic art/entertainment from the Disney studio, so it will not see the light of day.

  • Wow, those zebra-women from "Fantasia" are super offensive!  I mean, jeez, that's really bad.

  • I remember when Warner Brother's released their older cartoons there was a moment before the cartoons featuring Whoopie Goldberg explaining/reminding the viewer that what they were about to watch was a period piece. Why can't Disney do that now? I use to watch reruns of Amos and Andy . Never once did I think it odd that all the major character's were not white(which I am). I have seen parts of Song of the South and feel that if I have to be told which parts are offensive then maybe it's not so obvious and should be allowed to be seen. Or(if Disney is so embarrassed by the original)how about a remake?

  • I think what makes song of the south so frustrating is that Disney continues to promote its franchise through Splash Mountain. They're obviously not going to close or retheme the attraction as it's immensely popular,  but that's one of the things that keeps that movie from vanishing into obscurity. So why not, as people said, use the resale of the movie as an educational point and as a way  to make profit?

  • I think that it is funny that Disney refuses to release a film that one of their biggest theme park attractions is based on (Splash Mountain). How many people who go on the ride even know it's based on a film?

    That said, I actually own a copy of "Song of the South", and have watched it a few times. Let me tell those  of you that haven't seen it: You ain't missing anything. The film is pretty bad. Not "offensive" bad, just bad. Slow paced, and sickly sweet, it may be one of Disney's worst live action films. The sad thing is,  the  animated segments are among the best Disney's ever done. It's a shame they are never  seen. They stand up pretty well by themselves though, and are far less racially offensive than the examples Jim notes here. Too bad Disney doesn't release them by themselves on some "Treasures of Animation" DVD.

  • I think the whole argument is kind of silly. (However, I do see Bob Iger's point of view. Why would Disney want to stir up racial stuff?) But it's still kind of silly. The film is available online. You Tube has a lot of behind the scenes footage though it's silent film. I'd like to see the behind the scenes footage released with sound commentary naming the people seen in that footage. I know who some of the people are but not all of them.

    On another note, I find Song of the South bitter sweet. Both of the kids, Luanna Patten & Bobby Driscoll died too young.

  • I'm 19 years old and I love "Song of the South". It's a great heartwarming film filled with great live-action/animation blending (for its time). Yes, I do think that there are some questionable things in this film but the rest of the film is very solid. The character of Ginny is TOO SUGARY SWEET. It's almost like she herself is a cartoon character. When she's lying the mud puddle crying, I just wanna scream, "DEAR GOD, MAKE IT STOP!!!"

    But I digress. I'm mainly neutral on this decision, but I still want to believe we haven't heard the last of "Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah". They will find some way to make it work. It just needs more time.

  • I am so sick of political correctness & how thin-skinned everyone has become about everything.  Everyone should stop taking themselves so seriously.  If you are looking to be offended you probably will be.  I would love to see Song of the South released.  Splash Mountain is my daughter's favorite attraction and I have told her it is based on a Disney movie.  It is very difficult to explain why she cannot see it as I just don't understand it myself.

  • I agree with everyone else that it should be released and I agree as a "sliver boxed set". This would avoid the family that picks it up at Target or Walmart not knowing what it is and gets offended. Being a "sliver boxed set" it would be available for those who want it and they would have to specfically seek it out.

    I have to think that something else is going on here though. Disney (especially during the Eisner era) would do almost anything if they thought they could make a buck at it (cheapquels anyone?). So either they don't think releasing it would be profitable enough or something else is going on.

  • I think the Song of the South should be released.  It is part of our history as a country and people should be able to learn from it and not be sheltered from the truth.  We have come a long way as a nation against discrimination and I feel it would do all of us some good to reflect back and get an insight to what had happened and where we are now and where we have yet to go.

  • Whether the film really is or is not as offensive as it is reputed to be, releasing the film certainly WILL cause media headlines.  All it takes is one extremely vocal group to cry foul, and suddenly Disney is having to defend itself.  SONG OF THE SOUTH remains *the* poster child  for all dialogues about racial insensitivity in the early Disney company, and I don't see why Disney would ever want to re-visit it, as a Disney Treasure or otherwise.  Sure, the company could get the head of the NAACP or something to introduce the film, or include some other content related to the times in which the film was made.  But with that, the DVD becomes a product for adult fans of animation, rather than kids of all ages.  Not exactly profitable.

  • I can pop in a dvd still being sold by the Company which has a cartoon featuring Mickey, Minnie, and Pluto in blackface and Pluto saying, "Mammy!" Bob Iger just doesn't want the embarassment of our Community-Organizer-In-Chief joinging the drummed-up outrage against racist corporate Disney. If the protesters got wind of the Treasures set, no Leonard Maltin disclaimer would be good enough to keep those discs available.

  • Disney needs to stop trying to please all of the people all of the time. Granted, if something is blatanly offensive, remove it, but little if anything from Disney is. As society advances, they're being led to believe that complaining about anything they dislike will get attention, feeding into the era of whining.

    "If I see something offensive on TV, I'll complain until it gets removed, instead of just changing the channel. So what if other people enjoy it. I'm offended, I want it removed, and what I want is the only thing I care about." This seems to pretty much sum up the overly-sensitive, politically-correct attitude of a lot of society today, which will never improve as long as companies like Disney change a ride because a pirate chasing a maiden is offensive. From what I've read about pirates, it's probably not the worst thing they've done to maidens.

    Oh, and bring back gunfights in the street.

  • While the film is set in the post-Civil War era, the African American characters are certainly treated like slaves by the white folks, even if they aren't, although they're portrayed sympathetically. Then there's the cartoon characters' dialogue, still larded with stereotype expressions, though it's cleaned up considerably from the Joel Chandler Harris original. That said, SotS is no worse than the portrayals of African Americans in "Gone with the Wind," which is a considered a classic of American film. I think Iger's being super-sensitive about this, possibly  based on an NAACP reaction that happened decades ago, and I see no reason why it shouldn't be released. (Except for the musical score -- can't stand it, to the point where I stay off Splash Mountain to avoid hearing it repeated ad infinitum.)

  • I remember seeing Song of the South as a kid and really enjoying it.  I've hoped to be able to see it again as an adult.  I find it interesting that no one seems to fuss about the books still being published with the Brer Rabbit stories.    Disney didn't just make up these stories; they originated in folk tales.  I think it would be fantastic to have Disney do a really good documentary on the origins of the stories, how they were finally written down and how Disney adapted them.  Since Disney hasn't been too concerned with some of their other historical animated movies and shorts showing controversial images or language, I wonder if maybe something has happened to the original film and it can no longer be restored or, heaven forbid, it is missing. Song of the South is an important piece of film history and really deserves to be treated as such and seen.

Page 1 of 3 (38 items) 123