Possibly the most controversial movie ever released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner, Song of the South has been criticized since before its release for the racial implications of its production and its source material. If you want to dive deeply into all of the issues that have resulted in Disney's withdrawal of this notorious movie from public circulation within the United States since the 1980s, I recommend Karina Longworth's six-part podcast series on the subject; it's an exhaustive and well-researched (and heavily editorialized) dissertation. I'll try to limit this review to the more superficial aspects of Song of the South, and its effectiveness as a "childhood drama," although even those aspects can't be divorced from this movie's complicated origin story.
Prolific kid actor Bobby Driscoll stars as Johnny, a sensitive child who is dumped, along with his mother (Ruth Warrick), at his grandmother's Georgia plantation while his father returns to the city to work. Unable to cope with the idea that his father is leaving, Johnny runs away, but only makes it as far as the plantation's workers' quarters, where former slaves live in what appears to be a constant state of song. Johnny is particularly drawn to Uncle Remus (James Baskett), an old storyteller who regales the boy with tales of Br'er Rabbit, and his run-ins with the antagonistic Br'er Fox and Br'er bear. Johnny eventually becomes so attached to Remus that, despite his prim mother's misgivings, only Remus is able to revive the boy after he is waylaid by a bull.
Song of the South is a dumb mess, a low-light of the Disney canon even without touching its racial offenses. It's very likely that many of the movie's narrative issues are a direct result of its difficult production history, as Walt Disney persisted with the ill-advised notion capitalizing on the success of Gone With the Wind by adapting Joel Chandler Harris's already controversial Uncle Remus Stories. In his attempt to inoculate the final product against the already percolating criticisms, Disney ended up with a plot so threadbare and a setting so sterile and vague, and, out of supposed carefulness, a movie so completely bereft of any ideas or texture or detail, that virtually any accusation is able to find purchase in one of its many blank spaces.
As a story, if it can be called that, Johnny's situation is both generic and incoherent, an empty vehicle for inserts of animated hi-jinks and forced conflicts that add up to nothing. If it at first seems implausible that a nine-year-old boy has never before been separated from his professional father (especially during a time period of long travel times between adjacent cities), then Song of the South's premise gets off to a bad start very quickly, and never gets better. Even if one takes the paucity of that motivating conflict in stride, virtually nothing of any dramatic interest develops from it — Uncle Remus becomes a custodian father figure to Johnny, to which his mother objects for the clichéd movie parent complaint of 'too many stories' — until the script contrives for Johnny to get flattened by a bull. In the movie's single satisfying moment, Johnny is seen lying face down in the pasture, presumably dead or permanently crippled; but even here the rampant sterilizing Disneyfication of everything reduces Johnny's injuries to… a fever?
Of course, for all of its earnest striving to depict the Reconstruction-era south in the most wholesome and positive manner, the live action segments of Song of the South are merely a half-hearted excuse for the series of animated segments featuring three of the most annoying anthropomorphic animal characters ever put on screen. As someone who is already prone to glaze over during wacky cartoon sequences, the 25 minutes of animated material in Song of the South are simply unbearable, with voice performances so grating that they make Roger Rabbit sound like James Mason. If there is any thematic or narrative relevance to these cartoons — which include the infamous tar baby sequence — to the movie's overall narrative, I could not stay focused on them enough to glean; I merely endured.
There are some nice things in Song of the South. If you can avoid the hazard of considering the lyrics within the historical context of the movie's time period, the songs are quite good, and the choral numbers performed by the Hall Johnson Choir are lovely (and over too quickly). Baskett's performance as Remus seems quite sincere and energetic, despite its obvious correlation to unfavorable racial stereotypes. He is an appealing presence throughout the film, and it's too bad that this one major role in his career (and his last before his death in 1948), and for which he won an honorary Academy Award, is so uncomfortable to watch. He also contributed some of the voices for the obnoxious animated characters, so there's that. On the other hand, the film completely wastes the talents of Warrick and Hattie McDaniel, who have nothing roles in a movie defined by its nothingness. Likewise, child actors Luana Patten and Glenn Leedy show promise, but are hamstrung by a script with no purpose.
There are some nicely shot scenes in Song of the South, even though these have been badly affected by the movie's general unavailability except for poor bootleg sources. The source print for the HD-quality version I watched, which appears to have been recorded from a UK TV broadcast, was rife with aged discoloration that would have been restored by now for any other Disney movie not hidden in their vault of shame. The interactions between live action and cartoons are well-done (better than, I think, in similar scenes in Mary Poppins almost 20 years later). One effects shot, in particular, of Remus superimposed in the sky over an animated setting, is a hint of grand Disney magic… again, except for how Baskett's performance evokes uncomfortable connotations.
Song of the South may be interesting as a cultural artifact or as a source of controversy, and I'm always interested in looking at movies like that and finding their qualities which have been obscured by their status as totems of social significance. But I didn't really find enough quality in it, which I think is part of why it has been so easy to marginalize as "problematic" (as opposed to, say, Gone With the Wind, which has survived despite reasonable similar criticisms), it really has little else going for it.