Like many classic fairy tales and children’s stories, the tales and characters of Uncle Remus are best known today thanks to Disney. Not unlike Walt Disney’s animated features of Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, or Peter Pan, the 1946 film Song of the South introduced Remus and his animal brethren to a whole new generation who may not have grown up with the original stories as told by Georgian author and journalist, Joel Chandler Harris in the mid-to-late-19th Century.
Harris spent a few years working at and around plantations as a teen. During this time, he befriended several of the slaves, and would often listen to their stories and folk tales. After the Civil War, he rejected the old idea of slavery and supported the causes of recently freed African-Americans during the Reconstruction Era. He hoped to shed light on their culture and heritage by publishing the stories he heard on the plantation, using the fictional character of Uncle Remus, an old Black plantation worker who told the tales of Br’er Rabbit and his animal friends and enemies to the local children. To maintain their authenticity, Uncle Remus and his characters spoke in the Gullah dialect common among less-educated English-speaking African-Americans of the 1800s.
These stories may have been lost to time and cultural oppression if it hadn’t been for Harris, and Walt Disney was one of the young people influenced by them. Like many other pieces of classic literature he grew up with, Walt wanted to bring these characters to life on the motion picture screen. Using a combination of live-action and animation, Song of the South introduced Uncle Remus, Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Frog to movie-going audiences around the world.
40 years later, Song of the South was rereleased in theaters for its anniversary. At the same time, Imagineer Tony Baxter was trying to think of a theme for a log flume attraction they had been working on for Disneyland, and his attention was drawn to this classic film. Conveniently, another Disneyland attraction, America Sings, would soon be closing, and dozens of animal Audio-Animatronics would be homeless. Baxter had the brilliant idea of retelling the tales of Br’er Rabbit, et al, in ride form, with the final flume drop to simulate the guests being thrown into the Briar Patch off of Chick-A-Pin Hill, as depicted at the end of the “Tar Baby” tale.
The popularity of the incongruously named Splash Mountain sparked interest in the characters and stories. Although 1986 would be the last time Song of the South or its stories would be officially released in any format, millions of park-goers in California, Florida, and Japan would grow to love the characters and stories of Uncle Remus through this attraction.
Splash Mountain features only the “animated” segments of Song of the South, and none of the characters or situations of the live-action segments. Even the role of the storyteller, the eponymous Uncle Remus in the movie (portrayed on-screen by celebrated African-American actor, James Baskett) has been designated to Br’er Frog (voiced by another celebrated African-American actor, James Avery, best known as Will Smith’s Uncle Phil Banks from the influential sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air). Although the characters still speak in a diluted eye dialect, none of the them are depicted as any particular race, since they’re all animals. And instead of getting stuck in a “tar baby” at the climax of the story, Br’er Rabbit is stuck in a honeycomb.
The removal of all references to race and the live-action characters of the source material means that these stories, originally told as morality fables to young Black children throughout the southern United States, get to live on through Splash Mountain, teaching generations of guests of all ages, races, and origins, to be smart and true to oneself, and never wander too far away from home, sweet home.
In addition to its immersive story and memorable songs, Splash Mountain is also one of the Disney Parks’ last great Audio-Animatronic showcases, as few other attractions after this would feature nearly as many three-dimensional animated figures, with future attractions focusing more on physical thrills and projection effects.
Good stories transcend time, culture, and even race. It is for its cultural and technical value that Splash Mountain deserves to be preserved, in one way or another, for current and future generations to enjoy.