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IS DISNEY GOING TO DO THE RIGHT THING?

March 2005


Sorry for the two months since the last update. I really wanted to get one done in February, but my time has been sparse lately. I really was going to stop my procrastination, but I kept putting that off. (That's a joke, son.)

On the widescreen front, I can't say that a lot has been going on. I still get the occasional troll from time to time who apparently needs to make himself feel better by sending me some kind of anti-widescreen diatribe. It's almost as though these people think that something will snap and I'll suddenly say, “Yes, you're right! I shouldn't be advocating the mangling of movies in widescreen!” I'm not sure when makes them think that I'll do that, but if it makes their miniscule ego feel better by letting them do a pointless rant, then at least I can say that I helped to serve a purpose for them.

One of the most intriguing pieces that I've come across in the past two months is that Disney appears to be getting ready to release Song of the South to American consumers in 2006.

Since there are many who are no doubt too young to understand the controversy around this Disney classic, I'll try to explain.

The setting of Song of the South is the time of Reconstruction, which is the period that came after the American Civil War. Slavery was over. (Keep that in mind.)

Song of the South is a Disney version of many stories that were based on a series of the Uncle Remus books by Joel Chandler Harris. The source for these books were stories that were told to Harris by escaped slaves and often were metaphors for the weaker outwitting the stronger through the ability to out-smart the stronger. This is even reflected in Song of the South.

As to the movie itself, it was nothing more than a typical Disney marvel, combining animation and live action seamlessly as was their trademark at that time, with some songs that are truly memorable. How many young Americans know Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah immediately upon hearing it? Well, guess the movie from which that song came! To this day, everyone who has gone to Splash Mountain at the various Disney Theme parks knows this song because Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah is the theme song (for lack of a better term) for Splash Mountain, but very few younger Americans have ever seen the movie that spawned that song.

What is also remarkable is that in 1948 an Academy Award was given to the late James Baskett, who portrays Uncle Remus in the movie. This was the first Academy Award ever presented to either a black man or woman. To have this happen in 1948 years before the Civil Rights movement is even more astonishing and a testament to the appeal of Song of the South, Mr. Baskett, and his talents.

[Correction: The first Academy Award ever awarded to either a black man or woman was given to Hattie McDaniel for her performance in Gone With The Wind. Hattie also appeared in Song of the South. -- JB]

(And, yes, I intentionally avoid the "blank-American" moniker, regardless of what blank might be.)

The problem is that Song of the South has not been shown in American theaters since the late 1980s. It has not been released to home video in the U.S. for over twenty years (supposedly it was released on Beta in the very early 1980s); but yet it has been released and is regularly played by TV stations numerous times throughout the world just not in the U.S. One of the most sought after products by American Disney fans is the Japanese Song of the South laserdisc. Because Japan also uses the NTSC video standard, Japanese laserdiscs are compatible with North American systems.

So, why has Disney been reticent to release “Song of the South”? I don't know, but I do strongly believe that "political correctness run amok" is the cause for it.

One reason is rumored to be because of a protest or boycott by the NAACP because it shows slaves being happy. Obviously, this is ridiculous if only because of the fact that (as mentioned earlier) there was no slavery during the time of Song of the South; however, one must note that this "protest" was back when it was originally shown in the late 1940s. So, that's hardly a reason to deny the American public in the last two decades. Additionally, there does not seem to be any evidence of protest or complaints that were submitted to Disney after the last U.S. theatrical run.

Yes, there are many segments where the "black, slave dialect" is used. Forget that the dialect is historically accurate, or that such dialects were used by the incredibly talented Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy, or that many black comedians like Dave Chapelle currently use the same kind of dialect regularly. How do people expect the Uncle Remus character to speak, anyway? This was the post-Civil War South. Is he expected to talk like some New York yuppie about to make a stock trade on his cell phone? As long as we're trying to deny historical fact, why not make Uncle Remus sound like Thurston Howell III? Oh, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Sah, lovie! We need to get off this island!

Perhaps the notion that many freed blacks are portrayed as enjoying the work they do is why the rumor persists. In truth, the "freemen" were able to leave their plantations if they preferred, but most chose to stay. In fact, Uncle Remus is given that choice in the movie.

Even SaveDisney.com, which is owned and run by Roy Disney himself, has an interesting article about this topic titled "In defense of Disney's Uncle Remus". (Note that although Roy Disney did not pen this particular article and the footnote states that the opinions are clearly those of its author, the fact that it's been posted on SaveDisney.com should say something about what Roy Disney thinks about it.)

If this actually turns out to be true, I applaud the decision; however, I am HIGHLY skeptical about the release. I do not trust the Walt Disney Company to do what's right by releasing the movie intact. They have been given the opportunity many times and instead have decided to show fear of the politically-correct, hypersensitive types in this country.

For example, the back of the Fantasia DVD claims that the DVD is uncut and unedited; however, several scenes were redrawn entirely or completely cut out of The Pastoral Symphony segment due to black centaurs being shown in subservient roles. (Some of the edited scenes are available in my Multimedia section.) Stereotypical? Yes. Racist? Arguably. Should be preserved as originally shown for historical purposes? Absolutely.

Let us also not forget that several Disney cartoons have been edited to remove politically-incorrect material. Try to look for the originally-present cigars in Saludos Amigos or cleavage in certain segments of Melody Time as presented in their most recent DVD releases. You won't see either.

There are also a large number of cartoons from Disney (and other studios) that have not seen the light of TV phosphors in decades due to political correctness and the oh-so-dreadful fear of offending someone.

So, whereas I'm thrilled that Song of the South is supposed to be released, I fear that it will somehow be edited to "adjust" its content or that it will contain some type of apologetic whining at the beginning begging the public to not be offended. I understand the notion that there is so much "racial content" in the movie that it would be a monumental task to remove any of it without breaking the movie entirely. Unfortunately, where political correctness is involved the Disney Company under accountant-turned-demigod Michael Eisner has proven that if there is a way to pander to the hypersensitive, they will do it. Fantasia, Saludos Amigos, and Melody Time are proof of that.

Maybe the forced removal of Eisner and the coincidental release of Song of the South so soon after his resignation was announced is a sign that the Walt Disney Company is returning to its roots. I'm not sure. But, if that's the case then the release of Song of the South is a good olive branch to extend to the public in apology for what the Walt Disney Company has become in the past two decades.

In the same line I hereby make my apology to Roy Disney for accusations that I have made against him in previous commentaries. It is clear upon looking back at Disney history and the recent events that have occurred in the upper echelons of Disney corporate that Michael Eisner had more to do with the problems of the company than anyone his "yes" men notwithstanding. This is supported by his narrowly-missed "No Confidence" vote of last year. From the shutting down of Disney's animation studios in Florida to the shutting down or ruinous "upgrades" of numerous, historical attractions at the various theme parks, it's clear that the Walt Disney Corporation has strayed far from the greatness that they once had.

So, it's become evident to me as of late that Roy has actually been fighting to uphold Walt's legacy. Because of that, Roy, I apologize to you. Count me in.

Until next time...!