This is something that isn't exactly "new" but the other day I was chatting to a colleague who lives in Orlando and frequently visits DisneyWorld, one place I'm yet to visit. It was on my list for 2020 to spend a whole week there, but a certain something had to screw up the world economies and the finances of many, including myself. I digress, we were talking about the Disney Annual PassHolder and if it was worth it. It was also my plan to get one this year so I could just live at the Disney Parks. He couldn't talk more highly of it and made mention that since his family lives less than an hour away they go multiple times a week. If they feel like getting some love from the Mouse or just need a fix from a ride, off they go. Do it, then leave. What he did mention was that right now what the family is doing is simply visiting the park as often as possible to ensure they can enjoy the family's favourite ride. The favourite ride is, like for many others, Splash Mountain. It started up a conversation with many of my other colleagues who all love the ride and thought it was beyond stupidity that Disney would even consider changing the ride.
In June it broke that Disney would "re-theme" the beloved ride at Disneyland and DisneyWorld. There is some contention as to when this was planned by Disney with a petition going around at the start of June wanting Disney to change the ride. A petition that attracted only 21,000 signatures. By the end of June, DisneyParks announced that they would be changing the ride and basing it on another film, the 2009 'The Princess and the Frog'.
So what is the issue with Splash Mountain? Well, we need to look at the history of the ride and why it's considered controversial. The ride is based on a Disney film that has a chequered past. Splash Mountain is based, using the term loosely, on the 1946 film 'Song of the South' a film that is now so chequered that Disney has tried to cancel it from its library. Yet not as much to stop playing the song 'Zippity Doo Dah' on a continual loop on Main Street or delete it from its music library. S0 let's talk about the film.
It is based on the stories of 'Uncle Remus' which were stories that were adapted in book form by Joel Chandler Harris. Harris wrote folk stories of Native Americans and in the case of the Uncle Remus stories they were stories told to him by the Black plantation workers in America's south. The stories were told to him by 'Br'er Rabbit' storytellers. During the slavery times of American History, Br'er Rabbit stories were believed to represent stories of slaves who would use "tricks" to get back at their owners. When it came to the writing of Joel Chandler Harris he was applauded at the time for this group of novels due to his ability to capture the language of plantation workers at the time and for telling the struggles of the workers. Harris was also an activist for racial reconciliation.
Walt Disney read these works from Harris and wanted to adapt them to the screen as early as the 1930s. The film itself in its development had many problems when it came to race relations. Disney hired an African American Screenwriter and Performer by the name of Clarence Muse to consult on the screenplay that was written by a Southern-born writer, Dalton Reymond. Muse would later quit stating that Reymond refused to listen to any suggestions made by him, especially with the fact that Reymond was wanting to portray the characters as Southern stereotypes instead of in a dignified manner. Although Disney would claim that Muse simply quit the process as he was disappointed that he wouldn't be playing Uncle Remus in the film. Disney would then hire Jewish screenwriter Maurice Rapf to work on the screenplay because he actually feared that Reymond's background meant that the film would be presented in Reymond's "white southern slant". Although it seems Reymond was far more difficult to work with and Rapf eventually quit the roll too.
So the film itself, yes, is steeped in racial problems and viewpoints that were no doubt outdated by even standards back then, however, at the time some of these views were still acceptable. The film would also feature an African American in a leading role for a film and share folk tails that many American's would never have heard of or even have had an interest in. With those still with "racist" views but probably lovers of Disney films then sadly it would be understandable that you would write elements of a film that would cater to the "archaic" views that these people had in order to get more ticket sales. Now yes, I have seen this film and when I watched it, well I must admit . . .
But this is the thing. I am watching it through the eyes of this time and place. If you watch it through the eyes of the time it was released, well sadly back then this was acceptable.
The other thing is the film is based in a post Civil War America. Like 'Gone With the Wind' a classic film that now is seen as racist? Well, it's a film based on a time and place in history, just like 'Song of the South'. However, there are positive things about the film that is entirely forgotten about in the debate. That is that the film features a young white boy from America's South who becomes friends with a plantation worker. Almost in a similar fashion to 'Boy In The Striped Pajamas' that shows a young child who grew up in a time where he is told to believe one viewpoint but forms a close relationship with someone who in his time would be seen, or called, as a "lesser people." The other thing about this film too is that Walt became dear friends with the lead actor, James Baskett who played Uncle Remus. Disney even told James' sister that he was "the best actor, I believe to be discovered in years" and formed a close friendship with the actor. Disney also campaigned the Academy to award Baskett with an Oscar for his performance which made Baskett the first Male African American to win an Oscar.
Another thing that is also forgotten in this debate is that the cast of the film stood by it. Hattie McDaniel who was in the film and is known for 'Gone With the Wind' and the first African American woman to win an Oscar also said:
“If I had for one moment considered any part of the picture degrading or harmful to my people, I would not have appeared therein.”
Civil Rights activist Herman Hill also stated that criticisms of the film were nothing more than:
"Unadulterated hogwash symptomatic of the unfortunate racial neurosis that seems to be gripping so many of our humourless brethren these days.”
Also adding that a film like 'Song of the South' could actually . . .
“Prove of inestimable goodwill in the furthering of interracial relations.”
Time to look at the ride that was inspired by this film, Splash Mountain. The Ride was designed as a way to reinvigorate what is now Critter Country at Disneyland. Indeed it has, Splash Mountain is the mainstay of Critter Country and a popular ride for everyone at Disney Parks. The ride itself takes a very innocent storyline about the mischievous Brer Rabbit who is leaving his home. Brer Fox and Brer Bear are hot on his trail and are determined to catch him. So you follow the story arch of Brer Rabbit who outsmarts the two of them a couple of times before he finds his 'laughing place' and he is able to convince Brer Fox and Brer Bear to let him return home.
So yes the characters and music from the film 'Song of the South' is used but the belief here is that Splash Mountain is exactly what the Simpler Times Mountain ride in 'American Dad' suggests. In that, Splash Mountain is a metaphor for slavery? Well I'm going to leave it to Stan Smith to sum up that theory.
The ride features innocent creatures with the main antagonist being a cheeky rabbit being chased by a fox and a bear. The suggestion of this ride being anything more is ludicrous. If anything it's looking for something that doesn't exist. I remember even as a kid, being a massive Disney fan riding Splash Mountrain multiple times and having no idea who these characters were. I simply thought that they and the song 'Zippity Doo Dah' was nothing more than a creation of Disney for a ride. I can assure you, that before this debate even showed its ugly head that the majority of people probably thought the same thing. I even remember one time riding it and having a large Black American sitting in front of me and we kept high fiving each other throughout the ride.
Now DisneyParks have claimed that the petition in June had nothing to do with the decision and was planned for some time prior. Well, what doesn't help is that you have decided to "re-theme" a beloved ride that apparently is racist with a film that features Disney's first-ever Black Princess.
The other thing too is that if this was planned for some time then wouldn't the COVID shutdown have provided the perfect opportunity to start implementing your planned changes?
Now I have nothing against having a ride for 'The Princess and the Frog' but when you are replacing an apparently "racist" ride with a ride based on a movie that features your first-ever Black Disney Princess then it does three things:
Reeks of Grandstanding It says to people effectively, nothing to see here. But how wonderful we are for doing this?
Degrades 'The Princess and The Frog' By replacing the ride or "re-theming" an old ride to a different film removes the fact that 'The Princess and The Frog' should have it's only stand-alone ride. Now yes space is limited, especially at Disneyland, but you found space for Star Wars Galaxy Edge. The other thing too is that for Disneyland and Disneyworld the film itself does not match its surroundings being Critter County [Disneyland] and Frontierland [DisneyWorld]. If anything, Disney Princess rides belong in FantasyLand with the other Disney Princesses. To put a "Princess" ride outside of FantasyLand is surely discriminatory to the other Disney Princesses.
Risks of Alienating Fans of the original ride which has become a mainstay at Disney Parks will have deep memories and won't forget the fact that Disney caved to pressure of a small minority and removed a beloved ride to appease a small minority. Also the fact that a lot of people who favour the change are labelling fans of Splash Mountrain as apparently a bunch of racists?
DisneyParks please wake up, Splash Mountain is a beloved ride for all and is nothing more than innocent ride. A petition to keep Splash Mountain has over 85,000 signitures compared to the 21,000 who want it changed. Like all things in Disney Parks, it's about seeing things through a child's eyes. Splash Mountain has a complicated background because of the film yes. But that's part of history. To remove Splash Mountain is the re-writing of history. If people want to learn the history and origins of Splash Mountain then that's what learning is about and this ride can spark the conversation which is a good thing is it not? Learning about the origins and not cancelling things to make everything look all "Sunshine and Lollipops" is the better learning experience. It's up to adults to teach children that history, even their own might not be the greatest, but it's about learning and improving ourselves, not cancelling it. But as I have said I'm confident the majority of people look at Splash Mountain in this fashion as nothing more than innocent. With the exception of the winter months, which is great because what will probably be the last time I ever get to ride Splash Mountain I had a Log all to myself. But Disney you need to look at the frequent long lines for it and the popularity of FastPass requests for the ride. Surely that is enough for you to realise that it's not a problem but a beloved staple of your Parks. To change it risks causing a riff for the sake of a minority.
One thing that James Baskett said when it came to 'Song of the South'
“I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the ‘Song of the South.’”
Well, how true are his words today than they were back then? I repeat DisneyParks, leave Splash Mountain alone!