Splash Mountain, Post-COVID but Pre-Remodel

During my long polemic last week about my latest trip to Disneyland, I briefly mentioned Splash Mountain. Despite rumors of it immediately shutting down for de-racisting, turns out it’s still open. And if it took close to a year for them to get rid of a couple of shrunken heads on the Jungle Cruise, I figure it’ll be a decade or two before they change Splash Mountain, since they’re redesigning the whole shebang

In fact, they just announced they’re closing Big Thunder for refurbishment, so Splash Mountain wasn’t even next in the queue. Let’s start a race: What comes first, the Harriet Tubman $20 bill or the Princess and the Frog Splash Mountain?

Calibrate your watches.

In the meantime, are there other ways to maybe de-racist it. And ideally keep “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

The problem with Splash Mountain, of course, is that it’s based off the racist 1946 movie Song of the South

Even when the ride was built back in the late 1980s, it felt an odd homage. We might not have been in the ultra-woke 2020s yet, but Song of the South was already the movie version of your racist uncle. I mean, one of it’s vignettes features tar babies, for Chrissakes! It wasn’t banned yet, but Disney was already downplaying its existence. There was talk they’d eventually pull it altogether, disavow it. The last thing one would expect them to do was build a brand new ride based on it.

The Little Mermaid came out the same year as Splash Mountain opened. I know the ride was likely planned long before the movie, but it seems a natural pairing, what with both entities containing water. Maybe Disney worried that movie would flop, seeing as it was the first of the new style musicals. But wouldn’t it be better to remind people of a minor failure of a film instead of a definitely racist one? People love Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride despite never seeing the movie it’s based on.

Still, Disney is profoundly slow to incorporate their movies into rides, as is evidenced by the fact that there are still no Frozen rides (in the U.S., at least), and that they think they’re being cutting edge by switching Splash Mountain to Princess and the Frog, a movie that came out in 2009. 

Sorry, *planning* to switch Splash Mountain. Because as of right now, it’s still Song of the South. And honestly, I wouldn’t mind it staying that way. If only they could separate it from its racist roots.

Nothing against Princess and the Frog, but it’s hardly the movie that rolls off your tongue when asked to list Disney animated films. Part of that, I’m sure, is the systemic racism that they’re trying to combat, but I think it’s a general ho-hum movie. More in line with, say Tarzan or Hunchback of Notre Dame, as opposed to Frozen or Beauty and the Beast. I mean, the princess is a frog for a large portion of the movie. So maybe the color of her skin isn’t what causes low sales of her dolls? And Disney doubled down in Soul by turning their second Black lead into a white ghost for most of the movie. Can’t just make a character Black for the whole movie, huh? 

What’ll come first, Harriet Tubman, Splash Mountain, or Elsa coming out of the closet?

But it’s okay, because at some point in the next decade or two, they’re going to take Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah off one of their rides!

Except I kinda like Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. I hope that doesn’t make me racist. 

And while I’m asking, what about Br’er Rabbit?

I’m not being facetious here. I’m trying to figure out if there’s some way Splash Mountain, instead of being redesigned, could be made less racist.

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Song of the South before, but it would’ve been forty years ago when I was only a child. The basic premise, if I remember correctly, was that an old African American man, named Uncle Remus, sat on a porch and told kids old folk tales about Br’er Rabbit and others. Those stories were animated, starting with Uncle Remus doing a voice-over introduction before the characters took over the narrative. Splash Mountain is based on one of those individual vignettes, not the movie as a whole.

The problem most people have with the movie, aside from the tar babies, is the character of Uncle Remus, who is little more than a stereotype of an “old Black dude.” Also, since the movie takes place in the Reconstruction Era, that makes Remus a former slave, but he seems like he’s in a good mood. I don’t know if the movie ever makes specific reference to slavery. Maybe he refers back to his youth but doesn’t specify he was a slave at the time? Personally, if I were a former slave, I don’t know if I’d want to constantly bring it up. I know many Holocaust survivors didn’t bring it up voluntarily.

I don’t think the lack of slavery references is what rubbed people the wrong way. I think it was that Remus was seen as uneducated, perhaps stupid. Comical? I feel like he was reminiscent of Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis, Jr. as they aged. White society wanted to see its Black men acting a certain way, as a docile minstrel. 

These racist portrayals of African Americans were inexcusable then and even moreso now. In one of the World War II era comics I use in my U.S. history class, there’s a character that, I shit you not, I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be a monkey or an African American. I think it’s a monkey, but it has pronounced white lips and talks similar to Uncle Remus. And he was supporting the “good guys” against the Nazis. It’s embarrassing. But at the same time, it’s a powerful demonstration of our nation’s sordid past.

But I’m not here to defend Uncle Remus as a museum to our past. That portrayal might very well belong in history’s trash bin. My real question is if he’s even necessary in the movie. 

Could they remake the movie, but leave out the narrator and make it “The Adventures of Br’er Rabbit”? I don’t think there’s anything inherently racist about the character. Is the fact that he uses wit to get out of jams a dog whistle for “shifty minorities”? If my understanding is correct, the stories of Br’er Rabbit weren’t made up by Disney, but were old folk tales told by southern Blacks, both before and after emancipation. I kinda feel like they could be presented in a more respectful manner here in the 21st century?

Okay, maybe not “respectful,” because somehow even He-Man causes social media vitriol. How about “contextually aware.”

This seems a much simpler task than shutting down Splash Mountain for a year or two to rebrand it. Bring back “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” but take away the stigma. Tell the story of a rabbit and a bear and their friends as they work their way through a world made difficult by systemic racism. Highlight them as symbols of African American resilience and perseverance when the deck is stacked against you. 

Seems like something we ought to be applauding and promoting, not ignoring because some racists appropriated it for themselves seventy years ago.

And maybe get rid of the tar babies this time around.

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