So…those remakes, huh? They’re a thing. In a way, they kind of remind me of the sequel era Disney went through from 1994 to 2008. It was a way for the studio to capitalize on their famous animated films without really risking much. But the big difference is that the sequels were, by most accounts, pretty poorly made. The animation was outsourced to satellite studios like the one in Australia where they were used to television quality and budgets. The A-list stars that made the originals memorable were rarely available for the follow-up. And most all of them were were sent straight to DVD racks to avoid unnecessary theater expenses. It was profitable, I’m sure, but in the long run, all it did was damage Disney’s reputation.
The remake era (2010 to now, plus 1996’s 101 Dalmatians) is starting to garner a similar reputation as just cashing in on what made the studios famous and popular without great risk. However, there is one key difference: the remakes aren’t that bad.
Oh sure, I don’t think much of Alice in Wonderland or 101 Dalmatians. I never saw Cinderella or Pete’s Dragon. I strongly disliked both Maleficent and Beauty and the Beast. I love The Jungle Book, but that’s one out of seven. How could I possibly think they don’t suck if that’s the case? Well, the answer is pretty simple. Minimal expense and effort was thrown into the cheaply-made straight-to-DVD sequels way back when. They were made for very young children who needed a babysitter when mom and dad were tired. Movies like The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were grand, Shakespearean, and tragic. But their sequels resorted to cheap jokes, flimsy plots, and predictable lessons on top of the poor animation quality and an absent original cast.
But the remakes? The studio is hiring big-name, reputable stars, set designers, writers, costume designers, and directors to helm these projects. Now with the advent of CGI, we can see the fantastic look more lifelike than ever before. These reimagined looks on our favorite films of yesteryear are simply new perspectives told with a fresh pair of eyes and utilizing tools that didn’t exist back in 1991 or 1967 or 1959. And even when they do falter critically or financially, they’re just retellings of our favorite stories, and they don’t affect my feelings about the originals. But by remaking them, there’s an opportunity to see these stories improved in some ways.
Now there are still plenty more in the works. Will Smith will be playing the Genie in a new adaptation of Aladdin. Game of Thrones writer Bryan Cogman is writing a new Sword in the Stone Movie. Mulan has already started casting. Jon Favreau’s The Lion King is nearing completion. Tim Burton’s Dumbo has caught a lot of attention. Both Winnie the Pooh and Mary Poppins will have new movies this year alone. And there’s still plenty more on the way. And I propose that on top of that pile, I toss in my suggestion to remake the 1946 classic Song of the South. Now, I know-SIT YOUR BUTT BACK DOWN!
okay…yeah, I know this movie doesn’t exactly have a great reputation. I get that. And another shocker: I’m a very liberal dude…and I like this movie. HEY! CAN YOU AT LEAST WAIT AND HEAR ME OUT BEFORE HITTING THE SEARCH BAR?!
Look, I get it. Racism in this country is a very real issue in America today. Despite all the strives we’ve made to rectify racial inequality and tension, we still are finding everything from systemic issues in institutions that make racism look invisible to the gun-toting misanthrope waving a confederate flag yelling “All lives matter”. These problems are real and we have to fix them. And I have to disagree with Morgan Freeman, who says the best way to deal with racism is to not talk about it so much. Bullcrap. We need to keep these avenues of discussion open and flowing, because ignoring the problem makes it worse. But all that doesn’t change when it comes to Song of the South for me. I like it and while it’s not exactly clear of its charges, I don’t find as bad as, say, Warner Brothers’ infamous censored eleven. I think it should be released and I should have the opportunity to see it and hope opponents will either not watch it or use it as a teaching moment for their kids.
But first, some history: Walt Disney wanted to make a story based on the Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus stories (He was a child of the Midwest at the turn on the century, after all), and decided to go forth and make a live action/animation hybrid based on them. Even back in the early forties, Walt understood there were going to be political repercussions and hired a leftist writer named Maurice Rapf in writing the story, fleshing out the live action bits with Johnny, Ginny, Uncle Remus, Miss Sally, et cetera. It premiered in Atlanta in November of 1946 and the critics and public just kinda shrugged apathetically. Sadly, James Baskett, the guy who played Br’er Fox and Uncle Remus, couldn’t get a room at the premiere because Jim Crow laws at hotels in Georgia are dicks. To boot, the African-American community were vocal in their displeasure, especially the NAACP.
Still, all was not lost. Baskett won an honorary Academy Award, fifteen years before Sidney Poitier won his, and the film won an Oscar for “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”. It got shuffled around in and out of theater re-releases, and in the eighties, Tony Baxter (The imagineer primarily responsible for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Journey into Imagination) pitched an idea using a log flume ride that utilized the animatronic animals from Tomorrowland’s America Sings attraction. The ride got its name from then-CEO Michael Eisner, who wanted to cross-promote the recent successful movie Splash even though Song of the South had all of jack squat to do with mermaids. The one in Disneyland opened in 1989 with the ones in Florida and Tokyo in 1992. So then, that’s it, right? Of course not.
The nineties gave rise to the era of “political correctness”. I hate that term, and not for the reason you think. See, I knew this era in the early 2000’s, when it was country musicians and stand-up comics all turning their noses up at it, bellowing “Grow up! I don’t care if I offend anybody! I’m not gonna censor myself just because I might hurt someone’s feelings!” And I gotta be honest, I was into it, too. But as I grew older, the more I thought about it, the less sense it made. Getting angry that society won’t let you say what you want? Yeah, that’s something toddlers do.
That being said, it still happened, and it was then Disney decided that after Song of the South’s last re-release in 1986, they weren’t going to do it again. Of course, they just built three über-popular Splash Mountains and that one song is pretty much one of Disney’s best-known, but maintaining a good image was paramount. So aside from the occasional acknowledgement in travel junkets, CD’s or history of the company books, Song of the South was going to stay tucked away and out of public view. At least, in America. It remained available for home viewing in Japan and Europe until 2001, but never had such luck stateside.
Now, as badly as I want Disney to admit a mea culpa, own up to making it, and release the stupid thing, I raise a proposal to remake it. And here’s why:
1. The original movie is objectively deeply flawed.
I love Song of the South (but then again, I am a bit of a hipster),but it is SO not without its flaws. While most of the actors are great, the child actors aren’t. Bobby Driscoll, who played the leading role of Johnny, and would later be the voice of Peter Pan, had been in ten movies by 1946, but man, he just doesn’t quite sell it. Luana Patten, who played Ginny, is only a little better. But the kids who play the Favers boys and Toby…I just don’t think they’re trying. And this isn’t me crapping on some poor kids, there are plenty of very talented child actors out there who could out-act them any day. Now of course, the biggest treasure of the movie is Baskett, but he died in 1948 (but then, if he were alive today, he would be 114 years old, so not remotely an option).
But also the movie’s pacing is terrible. It’s not like there’s lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes, but a lot of long, drawn-out scenes that would really benefit from snipping a few seconds here or there. Then there’s pointless scenes like Toby chasing a frog, or Uncle Remus deciding about keeping a puppy, and two scenes of a chorus that both go on for a couple of minutes, that just don’t add much to the story.
Also, the film’s weakest aspect is its lack of conflict. The Favers boys are the most transparent bullies ever written, Miss Sally’s attitude toward Uncle Remus feels forced, and the bull that attacks Johnny is textbook “flimsy setup, lousy payoff”. The only legitimate bad guys in the movie are Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, but they have no bearing on the live action parts. So between the lazy pacing and minimal conflict, the movie just has a lot of issues. Things that can be fixed if starting from scratch with a brand new script.
2. Movies about black people can be successful.
It’s a complaint we liberals have had for decades now, and only recently has Hollywood, or at least Disney, realized that they don’t need white people to have a critically or financially successful movie. If I were naïve, I’d point to last year’s surprise hit, the Oscar-winning Get Out, or Finn in the current Star Wars saga, or even as far back as 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. But while they helped, we know how they work. It’s all about the money in the end. And now that Marvel’s Black Panther became one of the highest grossing movies in the MCU, it should become easier for films about black people and their issues to be green lit.
The conservative, crusty, old, white men in Hollywood board rooms have been long afraid to make media that doesn’t deal with fellow white people directly, and when they try to tell stories about black struggles, it’s through the lens of white people. Even the original Song of the South may have been about Reconstruction Era former slaves, but the main characters are wealthy white people in a manor. Heck, the original books were essentially misappropriated stories from slaves by a white journalist.
Let’s rectify that. Let’s place this property in the hands of some great black writers, maybe get Ryan Coogler to direct it. Return the power and make something truly special. And maybe we’ll see another predominantly-black movie that doesn’t have to be yet another Tyler Perry movie.
3. It can be an opportunity to right a wrong.
Disney wants to forget it ever existed. Too bad. As I already pointed out, it gave us an Oscar-winning song and one of the most popular rides in Disney’s Magic Kingdoms. But company CEO Bob Iger has made it clear he wants nothing to do with it. So what to do?
I remember back in 2009 when Iger said he wanted to see how the public reacted to The Princess and the Frog first, but obviously nothing came of that. And because releasing the movie as is without context is risky, a remake may be the next best thing. We fans have long suggested Disney add an introduction to explain the film’s history on the home release, but a remake, if done well, could be better. It raises awareness and discussion on a mass scale, and goes by the old saying “show, don’t tell” in demonstrating the strides we’ve made since 1946. Leonard Martin explaining how far we’ve come is fine, but a movie that demonstrates a 2018+ perspective on black history? Better.
4. Ignoring it just isn’t the answer.
We live in a era where movies and TV are always in high demand and piracy is a real concern. Sites like YouTube are lousy with movie clips from Song of the South, and bootleg DVDs are rampant. And if you understand anything about human nature, you realize how unfeasible this strategy is. The more you try to keep something away from the public, the worse they’ll want it.
Parents and grandparents have seen it and remember it. There’s the ride and the song. And like it or not, it’s a skeleton in Disney’s closet. Like Cinderella or Harry Potter, you can shove it away and hide it from the world, but nothing goes away easily. By constantly trying to hide it away just makes Disney look as innocent as Richard Nixon. And remember, this is the company that decided to not go after Randy Moore when they had every right to regarding Escape from Tomorrow.
5. Movies about racial discourse have come a long way.
Back in the eighties and nineties, movies that highlighted racial disparity were usually either buddy comedies or “white savior” dramas, and usually exacerbated the issue of race portrayals rather than improved them. Even today they can flounder, as we recently learned from Netflix’s Bright.
But then in 2016, Disney tackled the race issue better than most adult movies in the animated release of Zootopia. While many critics would later point out the minor logistical issues in the allegory of prey vs. predator, it still dealt with the topic in a mature, insightful way that hadn’t really been done before. At least, not without being preachy or patronizing.
And if Black Panther taught us anything, it doesn’t even have to fully acknowledge racism head on. The Marvel movie focused on an uncolonized African country that fully indulged in what made their culture unique and special, with the one barb by calling Ross a “colonizer” and Killmonger’s idea of retributive justice. It wasn’t the focus. But it might behoove the remake if it focused on what made the black men and women of the Reconstruction era also unique and special, without having to force the race aspect in. As I said, it could even retroactively return the power of the stories back to where they belong. After all, supposedly the idea of little, clever Br’er Rabbit outwitting the bigger, meaner critters was supposed to be an allegory for the slave-white people relationships.
6. It may allow the original to exist again.
I don’t know if the remakes had any impact on sales of the originals when they came out, but a remake could spark public interest in the 1946 film and even use it as a way to ease it back into the public eye.
There is no “perfect time” to release the movie. It’s such a politically charging product that if another movement like #Blacklivesmatter were to pop up, Disney would be blamed for capitalizing on a tragedy. If they produce an updated Song of the South remake and follow up with the original a few weeks, or even months later, audiences would be primed, so to speak, to ingest such a controversial movie. And let’s not kid ourselves, the press would go haywire since day one the remake would be announced, and pretty much do Disney’s marketing for them. All Disney would have to do is make it smart, credible, unpretentious, and relevant. Because the only thing worse than a bad movie is an underwhelming one.
7. It’s been remade at least once before.
Ever heard of a guy named Tad Stones? You should. He was heavily involved in numerous Disney Afternoon shows from writing for the 1987 DuckTales, co-creator of Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers, and creator of Darkwing Duck. There’s a lot more, but my point is the guy has some serious animation credit.
In 2006, he was one of four producers for a direct-to-video by Universal Cartoon Studios called The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. It featured an impressive list of stars involved, including Nick Cannon, Wanda Sykes, Wayne Brady, D. L. Hughley, and Danny Glover. And believe it or not, it was devoid of racial controversy. It even included the oft-maligned Tar Baby story.
It’s worth your time checking out, if not for nothing, as an example of how Song of the South could be adapted for modern audiences.
Now, the biggest loss in all of this is that Baskett wouldn’t be involved. He carried so much charisma and warmth it almost didn’t matter he perpetuated the Uncle Tom stereotype. Honorary or not, damnit, he earned that Oscar. And it will be a hell of a challenge to find another actor to even come close matching his spirit. And before you say it, no, I don’t think Morgan Freeman should take over. The guy may be a great actor, but there are plenty of elderly black men in Hollywood that don’t get enough attention. Plus, if Disney were to make it about race relations, as I mentioned earlier, best not hire the man who thinks the best way to deal with racial discourse is to not talk about it.
Then there’s the animated characters, who should more or less be the focus of the movie. Aside from Baskett, they’re my favorite aspect of the movie. I worry about them being computer animated to look more realistic,!like the characters from that Peter Rabbit movie, but let’s be honest, the designs of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear are very appealing, and highly recognizable from the Splash Mountain Ride. Maybe if they were CGI, but rendered to look like the 1946 characters, that’d be cool, but it’s unlikely. But I always loved the trio, their relationship, and the slapstick animation. Maybe we might see what they did for Winnie the Pooh and continue to adapt more of the original stories into animated form. Because for what it’s worth, they’re still good stories.
There are a ton of possibilities if they decide to do this, and I want to see this happen. But what do you guys think? Possible? Does it sound cool? Too edgy? What are your thoughts? Hit me up with your opinions! And until next time, have yourself a Zip-a-dee-doo-dah day.