Splash Mountain at 30

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises.)

More than 18 million people visited Disneyland in 2018. The park averages somewhere around 45,000 to 50,000 people a day, though its maximum capacity is nearly twice that number. The attractions that serve as the foundation of Disneyland Park are, by and large, those that arrived in Anaheim well after the park opened 64 years ago, on July 17, 1955. Space Mountain arrived in the mid-1970s, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad showed up in 1979, and of course, the biggest inclusion of all, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, is barely two months old. 

But the most curious case among Disneyland’s E-Ticket attractions celebrates its 30th anniversary today. It’s a ride that has been consistently popular for its three decades, at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Like the best of Disney theme-park Imagineering, it’s an attraction that serves as a mix of styles, blended together to create a thrilling headliner. Like Galaxy’s Edge, it’s an attraction inspired by a film. The only difference is you probably haven’t ever seen the film on which Splash Mountain is based. And that’s just how Disney wants it.

A Laughin’ Place

Yes, Splash Mountain is 30 today, and remains one of the most enduring attractions in the worldwide Disney theme parks. As hard as it may be to imagine a world in which Splash Mountain doesn’t reign supreme as one of the constantly popular attractions at a Disney park, it’s truly baffling to consider its origins, precisely because Disney would…well, very much like you to not think about its origins at all. Some of you may already know about the film on which Splash Mountain is based (or you may think you know based on what you’ve seen people talk about online), but if not, it’s quite the tale.

Song of the South, the 1946 film from Walt Disney Pictures, serves as the basis for Splash Mountain. This hybrid of log flume and dark ride begins as you board a log and follow the mischievous Br’er Rabbit on a journey to his laughin’ place before he’s tossed into a briar patch from the top of Chickapin Hill. (Concurrent to his being tossed into the briar patch, you’re sent on a 50-foot drop down said hill. When you walk by Splash Mountain in either Disneyland or Walt Disney World, the sight of this drop is what you’re greeted by, along with delighted screams from guests making the plunge.) It all sounds exceedingly pleasant, and make no mistake: whatever else is true, Splash Mountain is one of the most well-designed, well-textured, and exciting thrill rides in Disney theme-park history. There’s a reason why it’s remained popular for so long.

But the quality of the ride is what makes its origins so much thornier, fittingly enough. Song of the South is the one Disney film that you can’t see legally — it’s never been released on modern home media, and even with the advent of the company’s new streaming service Disney+, that’s likely not going to change anytime soon. The film does, ostensibly, tell the story of Br’er Rabbit through animation that comprises almost a half-hour of the running time. As in the ride, Br’er Rabbit runs afoul of the nefarious Br’er Fox and his oafish lackey Br’er Bear. And as in the ride, Br’er Rabbit is able to escape by being tossed into a briar patch. But the live-action movie surrounding the animated segments (and even some of the content in the animated segments themselves) is, at best, problematic. And at worst, it’s painfully racist.

The Absence of Man

That’s because the story of Br’er Rabbit is one weaved by the kindly Uncle Remus, played in Song of the South by James Baskett. Uncle Remus, in the film, serves as a prototype of the “Magical Negro” trope — he seems to exist solely to provide guidance to a white character, in this case a young boy named Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll, who would go on to voice Peter Pan in the 1953 Disney animated film). Johnny and his mother have been moved to a Georgia plantation in the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction, while his father has stayed behind in Atlanta to work on a newspaper (presumably one that’s pro-black people, based on its controversial status). Johnny, lonely in the new environment, makes a couple new friends including Remus, who uses the Br’er Bear stories as a way to impart lessons to the boy.

The basic bones of Song of the South are less troubling than the way in which black characters are depicted in the film. Though the film is set in the Reconstruction era, the lack of context surrounding that fact (there’s no opening title credit explaining what year it is, for example) makes it seem an awful lot like Song of the South takes place during the Civil War itself. Worse, it could appear to take place during the time before the war when white people owned plantations and the black people on those plantations were their literal slaves. 

Uncle Remus and the other members of the black community in the film (one of whom is played by Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel) are not technically slaves. By the time the story begins, the Civil War had been lost by the Confederacy, and slaves were (supposed to be) freed men, women and children. But the black characters here work in plantations at menial tasks, and are overseen by white people, some of whom are scared of the influence they might have on young white kids. Defenders of the film may well point out that most black people of the time…well, worked on plantations performing menial tasks even after slavery was abolished. Historical accuracy, then, is less the issue here. It’s that the dramatic and creative liberties taken, even in the mid-1940s, are wince-inducing to consider. And the context you bring, or are meant to bring, to this film in the 2010s is impossible to separate from a sense of profound discomfort.

Of course, if you walk through the queues for Splash Mountain or ride the ride, you’ll have no idea about any of this, from the presentation of human characters to any debates about their existence in the film. Uncle Remus, Johnny, and all of the live human characters in Song of the South don’t make an appearance in the attraction. The experience takes place entirely within the animated sections of the film, even though many of the songs in the attraction are straight from the film’s live-action sections. (Arguably one of the most iconic Disney songs of all time, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, is the aural centerpiece of both the attraction and the film. In the film, it’s first performed by Baskett’s Remus, in what is a technically impressive fusion of bright, colorful animation and a live actor.)

You Can’t Run That Far 

The origins for Splash Mountain came from legendary Imagineer Tony Baxter, who wanted to come up with a ride that would drive more guests towards the Bear Country section of Disneyland back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (That section—now that Country Bear Jamboree, its prior linchpin, has gone away—is called Critter Country today.) Park executives wanted a log flume ride, which felt too ordinary for Baxter and his fellow Imagineers. It was Baxter, though, who thought of using Song of the South as inspiration for the overall attraction. Coupled with the ability to use some Audio-Animatronics from the defunct stage show America Sings! (which featured a lot of talking-animal characters who you can see now in the showboat scene at the end of Splash Mountain), Baxter was on his way.

Song of the South was never free from controversy, of course, even as it could inspire Disney’s team to create a new attraction. Before the advent of home media, though, the film was still one of many to get the re-release treatment from Disney. Despite having been scandalous enough back in the 1940s to draw the understandable ire of the NAACP, the film made a mild profit in its initial release, and got re-released five times over the next forty years. In fact, twice in the 1980s, the film got pushed back into theaters, most recently in the fall of 1986. (Construction on Splash Mountain began in the spring of 1987, notably.) 

Its 1980 re-release, in conjunction with celebrating the 100th anniversary of the stories written by Joel Chandler Harris that inspired the film, was barely outgrossed by, among other films, John Carpenter’s The Fog and Fame at the box office. The 1986 release was outgrossed in its opening weekend by just $1 million by Don Bluth’s An American Tail. Though it wasn’t a huge success in either re-release, it was also not an outright flop. (The 1980 re-release outgrossed the re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so it was no slouch.)

The uproar surrounding Song of the South is what has kept it from getting an official home-media release, in spite of the film serving as the foundation for Splash Mountain. To talk about the attraction is to truly talk about what Disney doesn’t want to ever talk about: a film that they’ve treated so poorly that you have to buy a bootleg copy to watch it. (Depending on the time of year, you can also see if someone’s uploaded it to YouTube. You never know.) Splash Mountain steers away from the elements of the film that have garnered it so much controversy over time. The infamous “tar baby” sequence of the 1946 film, in which Br’er Rabbit attacks a doll covered in tar (invoking a slur against black people), is nowhere to be found. The humans are nowhere to be found either.

Where It Is For One, Mightn’t Be For Another

And of course, neither is the film itself. You could argue — as I have in book form — that Disney treats Song of the South in a disproportionate way to other films they’ve released with racially insensitive material. (To note, this argument can be made separate of a discussion of the film’s quality. Song of the South is technically remarkable and has a number of memorable songs, but is a mawkish, overly sappy story that’s dull even before you consider its racism.) Why does Song of the South get shunted to the side, but Dumbo and Peter Pan get Blu-ray releases? The unique challenge with Splash Mountain isn’t that it’s a great attraction inspired by a film that has wince-inducing content. The two aforementioned animated features are the foundation for great rides, even as they invoke African American and Native American stereotypes for no good reason. 

It’s that in an ideal world, Disney wouldn’t have you be aware that there’s even source material. In some ways, Splash Mountain transcends the current operating principle that a theme-park ride cannot survive without intellectual property lifting it up. As a fusion of thrill and dark ride, of Adventureland and Fantasyland, Splash Mountain is a one-of-a-kind marvel. It could only exist because of intellectual property. But its success lies with the fact that you’re really better off, in Disney’s estimation, thinking that it’s a true original.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Disneyland was celebrating its 30th anniversary today. That error has been corrected.

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