Let’s face it: we’re living in an era of upheaval. From the toppling of statues to the prevalence of “cancel culture,” the left is trying its hardest to remove voices from the past and present that don’t buy into their narrative.
For a while, one of those attempts to cancel something that the left sees as problematic was a petition for Disney to change its Splash Mountain flume ride, which is based on the 1946 film Song of the South.
Song of the South took Joel Chandler Harris’ classic Uncle Remus stories and put them on screen in the most innovative way possible, by blending live action for the human characters with animated animals for the fables that Uncle Remus tells. The movie won an Academy Award for the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” as well as a special Oscar for star James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus.
Song of the South has courted controversy for years for its portrayal of race relations — and Disney knew that fact even as they were making the film. Nevertheless, it was a success at a time right after World War II when Disney needed a hit the most, and the blending of animation and live action was revolutionary for its time.
Still, Disney has never released a full version of Song of the South on home video in the United States, although Europe and Japan have had VHS and laser disc releases — and Disney legend Whoopi Goldberg has called for an American home video release.
In the 80s, Imagineer Tony Baxter conceptualized a water ride based on the animated characters in the movie, and Splash Mountain made its debut at Disneyland in 1989 and at Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland in 1992.
This week, Disney announced that it will be “plussing” Splash Mountain and turning it into a ride based on the 2009 animated hit The Princess and the Frog. The new ride will pick up where the movie leaves off, following Princess Tiana and Prince Louis on a Mardi Gras adventure.
It’s easy to look at the announcement with a side eye, even though Disney says the concept has been in development for about a year. The announcement does include a little bit of heavy-handed explanation of how Disney seeks to “plus” or improve their attractions:
The approach to retheming or “plussing” attractions (as Walt Disney referred to it) begins with Imagineers asking the question, how can we build upon or elevate the experience and tell a fresh, relevant story? It’s a continuous process that Imagineers are deeply passionate about. And with this longstanding history of updating attractions and adding new magic, 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.
The article quotes several members of the movie’s tremendous voice cast, along with some black Disney executives. Disney honestly goes a little over the top in trying to make the announcement seem timely and historic. (I’m guilty of it too.) But this move touches more nerves, largely because of the cult following that Song of the South has.
Many people love and appreciate Song of the South for its artistry and innovation, while plenty of others lionize the film as a backlash against an early example of political correctness and what we now call “cancel culture.” Both camps will cling tightly to the Splash Mountain concept with varying degrees of outrage.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about the change. I’ve said for years that Tiana is underrepresented in the parks. As the first African-American Disney princess — heck, maybe even the first American princess in general, depending on how you feel about Pocahontas — she ought to have more visibility.
Besides, if Disney isn’t going to release Song of the South and allow fans to buy it or stream it — and that’s even more of a long shot now than it ever was — why should we have an attraction based on characters from a movie that a growing majority of families have never been able to see?
At the same time, there are no direct references to any of the film’s human characters on Splash Mountain. The cartoon characters and situations, along with the music, are the only links to Song of the South. Are we willing to consider cartoon rabbits, foxes, and bears racially problematic? (The crows who sing “When I See an Elephant Fly” in Dumbo make me cringe more than anything in Song of the South.)
If Splash Mountain were truly racist, the rest of the Imagineers wouldn’t have let Tony Baxter go forward with the idea three decades ago.
I’m going to geek out here a little bit and make another argument. Putting Tiana and the New Orleans setting of The Princess and the Frog in the place of Splash Mountain is a little incongruous. At Walt Disney World, Splash Mountain sits in Frontierland, and New Orleans is a little far removed from the southwestern setting of the rest of the land (of course, the Georgia setting of Splash Mountain wasn’t any better). Disneyland has a New Orleans Square land, but Tiana will reside in Critter Country, where Splash Mountain is now. It takes a little stretching to fit her in either land.
Disney says it’s been working on the new idea for quite some time, and I believe them. But it’s also hard not to view the timing of the announcement with a little cynicism. Are they trying to nip controversy in the bud? Or is the announcement an attempt to curry favor with the left, like so many other companies and organizations are doing these days?
At the end of the day, changing over Splash Mountain is something that was probably bound to happen, as Disney would rather use characters that families can actually watch at home as opposed to properties that aren’t readily available to the general public. I applaud and lament the change. I’ll miss Splash Mountain, even as I look forward with excitement to new adventures in the same space.