Many of the old Disney animators found their work on “Song of the South” (in re-release, citywide) more enjoyable than any other film, and it’s easy to understand why. Their adaptations of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear from Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories rank among the most vivid cartoon personalities the studio ever created.
When the wily Br’er Rabbit schemes to outwit the other two, he concentrates so intensely that every line in his body seems to be thinking. Similarly, Br’er Fox’s gestures emphasize his excitable, too-smart-for-his-own-good personality, and Br’er Bear’s ponderous motions demonstrate his monumental stupidity. While the vocal performances are uniformly excellent, these characters are so well animated, they can communicate thoughts and moods to the audience through pure pantomime.
“Song of the South” (1946) represented Walt Disney’s first attempt to make a feature film that included extensive, dramatic live-action footage. The animation is reduced to illustrations of three stories told by Uncle Remus (James Baskett).
He tells the stories to entertain Johnny (Bobby Driscoll), a lonely rich boy who’s been left at the plantation with his mother (Ruth Warrick) and grandmother (Lucille Watson). Johnny befriends Toby (Glen Leedy), a black child, and Ginny (Luana Patten), a poor white girl, but his real source of comfort and solace remains Uncle Remus. (Baskett received a special Oscar for his extraordinarily sympathetic portrayal.) From the Br’er Rabbit stories, Johnny learns how to cope with his adversaries--notably his priggish mother and Ginny’s hooligan brothers.
The film is made up of about 70% live action and 30% animation, which New York Times critic Bosley Crowther remarked was “the ratio of its mediocrity to its charm"--a judgment that the intervening 40 years have only confirmed. The rather weak story line seems overly melodramatic, especially the scene in which Johnny is recalled from the brink of death by another of Uncle Remus’ stories.
Even more dated are the depictions of the black characters: The film is very much a ‘40s Hollywood vision of the Ole South. The field hands march to and from work in neatly pressed work clothes, singing elaborate choral arrangements of spirituals. Although Uncle Remus is permitted to exchange a conspiratorial wink with the shrewd old grandmother, he and Toby remain passive characters who patiently endure scoldings for things that aren’t their fault.
The live action and animation are blended with a technical polish that astonished audiences in 1946, and remains impressive today. Uncle Remus appears to walk through a cartoon world, where he interacts casually and naturally with the animated characters. Cartoon birds and butterflies perch on his shoulders; when he casts a real fishing pole, the animated line lands in real water with an animated splash.
“Song of the South” is essentially a nostalgic valentine to a past that never existed, and within those limits, it offers a pleasant, family diversion for holiday afternoons when the children get restless.