For the live action actors, the other main characters were Johnny and Ginny, voiced by Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten, respectively. Bobby and Luana would go on to be in numerous films for Disney, but this was both of their first times with Disney. Bobby and Luana had both also been in films before this point, but were noticed by Walt himself and they became the first two actors to be contracted by Disney. Glenn Leedy played Toby, his only acting credit. He was chosen for the part after being seen by a talent scout while he was playing at his school playground in Phoenix, Arizona. The only other significant member of the cast is Hattie McDaniels as Aunt Tempy. McDaniels famously portrayed Mammy in Gone With The Wind, a role which won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first African American to win an Oscar.
Song of the South tells the story of Johnny, a little boy who is visiting his grandmother's plantation in Reconstruction times. Soon after arriving he meets Uncle Remus, a former slave who tells him stories about Br'er Rabbit and his antics trying to outwit Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear. Through these tales he learns valuable lessons about life and is able to apply them to his own experience. The three main stories that Uncle Remus tells Johnny are Br'er Rabbit Runs Away, Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby, and Br'er Rabbit's Laughing Place. In Br'er Rabbit Runs Away, Johnny learns that you can't run away from trouble, thus realizing that he should not run away from the plantation to seek out his father in Atlanta. In the second story, Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby, Johnny learns that cleverness can be a saviour for the small and weak, helping him outwit the neighborhood bullies. In the final animated segment, Br'er Rabbit's Laughing Place, Johnny learns how to find his happy place after the bullies ruin his birthday party.
The film would only end up grossing $3.3 million in its first run against a $2.125 million budget. The film was not the smash hit that Walt had been hoping for, and most of that had to do with his timing, though naivety may have also played a part. The film was released in the wake of the Double V campaign, which sought to promote victory over racism in the U.S. and its armed forces, and victory over fascism abroad. Americans were becoming more sensitive to race and didn't take kindly to Disney's southern-living nostalgia film. Walt had been warned that due to the subject of the film that he would be threading the needle and was likely to upset a lot of people. Walt had known to some degree that the film would be controversial, as he sought out prominent African American writers to give advice on the film. The Hays Office, which dictated what was allowed to be in films during this time, even pressured Walt to include a title card that elaborated that the film takes place after the Civil War to avoid further controversy, but apparently Walt didn't take the advice to heart. Due to this, there was enough confusion about when the film took place that Walter Francis White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, telegraphed major newspapers decrying the film for portraying dangerous slave condition stereotypes. The NAACP would go on to boycott the film, and many movie houses were picketed by both blacks and whites. All this bad publicity led to the less than stellar box office return. Walt had planned on making it into a whole series of films based off of Uncle Remus and his stories, but the reaction to Song of the South made it impossible.
Criticism of the film were centered on Uncle Remus's characterization, his relationship with his former owner, and his servile manner in general. The idyllic relationship between the former master and slaves drew the most ire, harkening back to the major tenant of The Lost Cause, that slaves liked being slaves and had good relationships with their masters. Though the temporary screenwriter, Maurice Rapf, had tried his best to eliminate the "Uncle Tommish" characterization for Uncle Remus, it still shows pretty prominently. Uncle Remus has also been found in more modern times to be an example of the "Magical Negro" archetype, which is defined as a stock African American character who uses special insight powers or powers attributed to the supernatural to help the white protagonist get out of trouble. What gives this evaluation more credence is the fact that the film ends with Johnny miraculously surviving being gored by a bull after Uncle Remus tells him another story about Br'er Rabbit and his Laughing Place. The inclusion of the "African-American English" dialect in the animated segments also drew ire, something that was equally rallied against in Harris's books as time went on. Even the animated segments weren't spared from outrage. The inclusion of the "Tar Baby" rubbed many the wrong way, and it's existence has only been replicated twice since then, as a very fast cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the "House of Scrooge" episode of House of Mouse. The other problematic animated segment was Br'er Rabbit Runs Away, in which the overall lesson is that you should be happy exactly where you are in life and that you can't run away from trouble. Suffice to say, there was no shortage of reasons for audiences to find the movie offensive.
Though Song of the South didn't end up being the smash hit Walt was hoping for, he was still going to market the hell out of it. Besides the numerous comic strips that came out of the movie, there was also a Giant Golden Book called Walt Disney's Uncle Remus Stories in 1946, and comic books that would be released over the years. While the film itself proved controversial, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" was an insanely catchy tune and nothing was going to keep it from winning the Best Song Academy Award in 1948. Walt and several others in the industry would argue for James Baskett to get an acting Academy Award, which he would ultimately get, though it was a special Academy Award "for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the world in Walt Disney's Song of the South". Baskett would pass away from a heart attack brought about by diabetes only a few months later at the age of only 44. Luana Patten and Bobby Driscoll were in talks to receive Academy Juvenile Awards, but the Academy decided not to award any that year. Unlike the other categories at the Academy Awards, the Juvenile Awards were only given out on special occasions.
Disney re-released the movie in theaters in 1956 for the movie's ten year anniversary, in 1972 for the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney Productions, in 1973 as a double bill for The Aristocats, in 1980 for the 100th anniversary of Harris's first Uncle Remus collection, and for the last time in 1986 for the 40th anniversary of the film's release. Starting in the 70's, the movie didn't do too bad in theaters, thanks to the young generation who had grown up with the Giant Golden Book, listening to "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" on records, and episodes of Disneyland showcasing the animated segments. There was a sort of nostalgia that blinded the overt offensiveness of the film and caused it to gross a total of $65 million over it's numerous releases. Though Disney was brave enough to release the film in theaters over the years, they had decided not to release the movie on home video, and still haven't to this day in the U.S. It was released on VHS in the U.K. in 1982 and 1991, and on VHS and Laserdisc in Japan in 1985, with another Laserdisc addition in 1990. The film has also never been released for home video in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Most bootlegs of the film have come from the U.K. release, though there are other versions floating around in other languages thanks to the distribution in other European, Asian, and Latin American countries.
Disney has gone back and forth on whether they would eventually release the film, but currently they have kept it locked up for fear that the film could tarnish their reputation. Many film archivist, historians, and even celebrities have called for Disney to release the film. Most recently, Whoopi Goldberg, giving a speech at the D23 Convention in 2017 after becoming a Disney Legend, asked the Disney Corporation to release the film so we could start a dialogue about the film, where it came from, and why it came out. While many who advocate for the release of the movie want it for educational reasons, there are others who want it released because they find nothing wrong with the film. People on the other side claim that the movie would be too damaging to impressionable young minds and the company has been right to keep it locked away. If you feel so inclined you can watch the film at archive.org.
Today the film lives on through the controversy, various Disney Sing-Along Songs releases, and strange enough, a log flume ride. Splash Mountain, located in many of the Disney parks around the world is uniquely themed to Song of the South, though only its animated segments. The ride was dreamed up by Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter in 1983 as he was trying to think of a ride for the often empty Bear Country area of Disneyland. The idea of having a log flume ride int eh parks had been floated around for years, but nobody could think of a good theming idea to keep it from being too much like regular theme park offerings. Disneyland had just closed the attraction America Sings, and was looking for a place to put all the animal animatronics that were collecting dust. Baxter realized that Song of the South would be a perfect fit for the Bear Country area and would be easy to theme around a log flume ride, so the Imagineers got to work on was to be called Zip-A-Dee River Run. The name was changed to Splash Mountain after Michael Eisner's ignored request to use the ride to instead promote the movie Splash. The ride does not include the Uncle Remus character in any way, instead focusing on the familiar Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear, among other animals. While the different scenes of the ride were based off the movie, one element had to be changed. In the film, Br'er Rabbit is captured after engaging with the "Tar Baby". Disney wisely decided not to include this aspect of the movie and changed it to a beehive full of honey that Br'er Rabbit gets stuck in. The dialect from the movie is also noticeably toned down in the ride. While both Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear are currently voiced by African-Americans (in Disneyland's case, they used the original voice of Br'er Bear, Nick Stewart), Disney chose to have veteran voice actor Jess Harnell voice Br'er Rabbit, and even Br'er Fox at first (Harnell is most known for providing Wakko Warner's voice on Animaniacs). The ride also features the songs "How Do You Do", "Everybody's Got A Laughing Place", and of course, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah". The ride is among one of the most beloved in the parks and has avoided controversy thanks to Tony Baxter and the Imagineers. The most interesting thing about the ride is that many that ride it believe the animated characters to be original to the park, when instead they are part of a movie that may never officially see the light of day ever again.