Disneyland’s Splash Mountain ride is undergoing a socially conscious revamp. Connections to controversial 1946 movie ‘Song of the South’ are behind the move. 2009’s ‘The Princess and the Frog’ will form the basis of a new attraction, following public pressure.
Many who ride the famous log flume have no idea about the source material which led to its creation. The original Splash Mountain was unveiled at Disneyland California in 1989, 3 years after the final re-release of Song of the South. The movie was then shut away in the House of Mouse vault.
Based on the “Uncle Remus” stories of Joel Chandler Harris and set in the late 19th century, the live action/animated musical presented an uncomfortably rosy view of slavery. When it came to building Splash Mountain, Disney moved away from historical context, focusing on the film’s animated critters such as Brer Rabbit.
The movie is well-known for its Oscar-winning song ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’. “Designers originally planned to name it ‘Zip-A-Dee River Run’” writes Smithsonian Magazine, “but later changed the name to ‘Splash Mountain’ in a vague allusion to a 1983 film starring Tom Hanks.”
A petition channeled people’s growing frustration, gaining over 20,000 signatures. The House of Mouse have released a statement explaining their intentions to reimagine the ride. Referring to the Disney “Imagineers”, the company sees ‘Princess and the Frog’ as the perfect choice. Main character Tiana “is a modern, courageous, and empowered woman”.
Disney also highlight the link between “Uncle Walt” and the film’s setting of New Orleans: “In 1966, Walt himself opened New Orleans Square when it became the first new ‘land’ added to Disneyland park, so it feels natural to link the story and the incredible music of ‘The Princess and the Frog’ to our parks.” Star Anika Noni Rose commented, “As passionate as I am about what we created, I know the fans are going to be over the moon.”
Two other versions of Splash Mountain appeared in 1992, at Magic Kingdom Florida and Tokyo Disneyland. Tokyo is run by an outside concern and has decided to keep the ride as it is.
The movie Song of the South opened at the Fox Theatre, Atlanta in November ‘46. “Song of the South’s African American cast members were not able to join Walt Disney and the white cast members at the movie’s premiere in Atlanta,” writes California’s Oakland Museum, “because Atlanta was a segregated city. African Americans could not enter the movie theater or any other public buildings in town.”
Public reactions were strong. Protests took place at the venue and elsewhere during the theatrical run. The Guardian says Song of the South was produced “over the objections of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the American Council on Race Relations”. The studio “rejected efforts to soften the script by the southern-born writer Dalton Reymond.”
Its story focuses on young Johnny (Bobby Driscoll), who encounters and befriends Uncle Remus (James Baskett) at the plantation he’s staying at during family upheavals. In a sense Song of the South is a warm film. “Remus’s sensitivity to Johnny far exceeds his parents’ coldness and neglect,” notes The Guardian. That said, the stereotypes aren’t far away. The article adds, “that warmth comes with the implication that men like Remus – and the housekeeper Aunt Tempy, played by Hattie McDaniel – are human only insofar as they serve the needs and destinies of the white characters.”
Together with other upsetting elements like the tar baby, Song of the South divided audiences from the day of its release. It’s been shut away since the Eighties and won’t be shown on Disney +. There are other outdated movies on the service – Peter Pan with its song ‘What Made the Red Man Red?’ is mentioned by The Guardian, which writes, “the retrograde elements in some of his (Disney’s) animated films… are preserved with a warning to viewers that the films ‘may contain outdated cultural depictions’. The word ‘may’, frankly, smacks of unnecessary bet-hedging.”
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Alex O, who launched the online petition, wrote an update addressing debates raised. “I appreciate everybody who supports it however as always with things that get attention like this there is a lot of nastiness” he says. “If you’re willing to have a discussion and potentially educate from a different perspective I appreciate that as well. However this is just a log ride in a theme park, a beloved one yes, but at the end of the day it’s just a ride, there are more pressing matters in the world currently.”
Further information about the Splash Mountain overhaul will reportedly land soon.
Steve Palace is a writer and comedian from the UK. He’s a contributor to both The Vintage News and The Hollywood News and has created content for many other websites. His short fiction has been published by Obverse Books.