It’s been nearly a month since Disney made a landmark announcement: they are replacing their most well-known ride — Splash Mountain. It’s hard to imagine the iconic theme park without its signature ride and those familiar photos of shocked, sometimes hilarious faces and wind-tossed hair that seem to be as big of a staple of a Disney visit as the Mickey ears are. While many are upset by the change, the timing of the announcement is particularly resonating, Many big companies and corporations are taking a stance in the Black Lives Matter movement right now.
The history of Splash Mountain
The history behind the ride is one of interest — full of complications and intrigue. Splash Mountain originally came to Disneyland in 1989 and later to the Magic Kingdom in 1992 — nearly 50 years after the release of the film “Song of the South” in 1946. While the ride itself focuses on the animated characters Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Rabbit — the controversy arises from the rest of the film.
“South of the Song” is no longer available to watch, locked away tightly in the Disney vault, but it chronicles the story of young Johnny who visits his grandmother’s plantation and hears stories from Uncle Remus, a black man that works on the plantation. The movie was released during the Reconstruction Era — post the Civil War when slavery was abolished — but this is never made clear in the film itself, leaving the representation hanging in limbo.
Uncle Remus tells the stories of the animated characters that inspire the ride, characters who are based on African American oral traditions. However, the controversial film was criticized for its stereotypical representations of African Americans — from their vernacular to more. The Splash Mountain ride also uses the “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” a controversial song, also known for its erasure of racist connotations.
While not all black press found the movie problematic, and James Baskett, who portrayed Uncle Remus, was even the first black male to receive an Oscar at the time the NAACP released the following statement on the film:
“The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in Song of the South remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, Song of the South unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master–slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.”
In fact, Disney even knew that what they were releasing was controversial before they started filming.
A tale (not) old as time
While it’s easy to pass off the film as a result of a period of growth, it’s an integral part of the controversy that shouldn’t be hidden away. The biggest complaint with the ride and the film is the blissful ignorance of political and historical problems. With the worldwide protests concerning the unjust death of George Floyd, what an individual or corporation says about this movement is important — but how they act on their sentiments is crucial.
Disney states that the removal of Splash Mountain from the two parks in the United States has been a project a year in the making. It’s to be changed into a ride associated with the only Black princess Disney has, Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog.” The project itself is being led by two Black women, Charita Carter and Carmen Smith.
Michael Ramirez, Public Relations Director at Disneyland Resort, said in his blogpost announcing the ride change, “The retheming of Splash Mountain is of particular importance today. The new concept is inclusive, one that all of our guests can connect with and be inspired by, and it speaks to the diversity of the millions of people who visit our parks each year.”
Splash Mountain at Disneyland Tokyo has not announced a removal yet, but they released a statement on a “possible” retheming of the ride.
A key component to growth in acknowledgment of incorrect thinking or biases, and while Disney can and should be criticized for burying “Song of the South” as if it doesn’t exist — this step makes a big statement.
It loudly conveys that a tale doesn’t have to be as old as time.