Song of the South, despite the controversies surrounding it, turns out to be quite an important film in the Disney canon. After watching this movie, I now understand how some of the later Disney live action films were influenced by it. For a viewer today, it appears like a standard Disney film. At the time, it was anything but.
Song of the South is an emotional film that tugs on your heart strings the way that you expect from Disney. It’s distinct, however, because the appeal is unique to the live action actors in a way that the Disney had ever done before this point. Bobby Driscoll as Johnny is a very appealing protagonist, playing a boy who has been left behind in the thoughts of his father and mother. He turns to Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett, to fill that void in his life.
The brilliant thing this story does is keep the focus on the people. It would have been quite easy to turn this film into a story of the Civil War and get caught up in slavery, politics and the sorts of things that other films have done. Instead, the lens is focused on Johnny and his relationship with Uncle Remus. Though there are other characters that make a difference to the plot, they serve merely as ways to make the story more interesting. It always comes back to Johnny and Uncle Remus and their symbiotic relationship.
Incorporating Joel Chandler Harris’ stories into a cohesive narrative would not be an easy thing, as each one was meant to stand alone. In the film, the stories are used as a device to illustrate a point that Uncle Remus is trying to make to Johnny or his friends. In the telling, Uncle Remus is fulfilled and by listening, Johnny is transported away from the difficulties of his father’s absence.
As complications arise in the relationship, either from Johnny’s mother or other sources, despite every move being telegraphed, it pulls at your heart on every level. I can see that critics might have viewed the film as overly melodramatic, but you could say that about many Disney live action films. I knew most of the complications that Uncle Remus and Johnny would face from the beginning of the movie, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment.
So while it’s true that this film is predictable, a little cliché and perhaps overboard with emotional appeals, that is what makes it fun. Think of the Disney films that come afterward, like Pollyanna, So Dear to My Heart or others set in these rural areas. They all follow a predictable pattern like this. Even Mary Poppins is a similar take on a child/protector relationship, and how that fosters a new relationship amongst a family.
I haven’t spoken about the animation yet, and that should tell you something about the focus of the film. While the stories of Brer Rabbit and his dealings with Brer Fox and Brer Bear are fun, they are typical shorts. The voice of Baskett telling the tale adds something to the proceedings, but for the most part they are fun diversions within the story. The quality of the animation is good, and the characters move and act superbly. But the three main pieces of animation are there to enhance the live action story, not be the story itself.
That’s a dramatic sea change in Disney history, and for that alone makes Song of the South a very important film. In the upcoming years after 1946, the studio would move to make much more use of live action, while not truly getting back into feature animation until the 1950s. It’s a charming little film, not groundbreaking except in the fact that the formula in this film would be followed for decades to come. As such, it’s very important for those like me who want to understand the Disney studio.