The Story of the Br'er Critters
By Sasha Coles
What do you get when you combine award-winning music and 100 audio-animatronic animals with a 52-foot drop at 40 miles per hour? A whole lot of fun! When Splash Mountain opened in July 1989, lines for the attraction reached all the way to the Haunted Mansion’s entrance. The first Disneyland visitors to go on the ride told reporters that it was worth the wait. Nine-year-old Sarah Koch said, “It’s one fast ride. It’s really fun—but scary too.” Splash Mountain carries you through a music-filled forest, where you meet possums, frogs, and other adorable critters. You also encounter Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox, who are hatching a plan to capture (and eat) Br’er Rabbit. Then, you see poor Br’er Rabbit stuck in a mess of honey, and Br’er Fox smacks his lips in the background. Your log begins to ascend Chick-A-Pin Hill. Before you know it, you are plummeting down the side of the mountain, straight towards a thorny briar patch. There’s a happy ending, though! Br’er Rabbit has outsmarted his foes, and singing and dancing alligators, chickens, foxes, and pigs aboard the Zip-A-Dee Lady steamboat treat you to a show. Splash Mountain offers a truly unforgettable experience, but the rich history behind the Br’er critters has largely been forgotten.
Their story begins in the nineteenth-century American South. In the 1860s, Joel Chandler Harris got a job setting type for a newspaper on the Turnwold Plantation in Georgia. Harris spent his free time in the slave quarters, where he listened to Uncle George Terrell, Aunt Crissy, and other enslaved people share animal folktales in a distinct African-American dialect. Slaves grew up with these stories in Africa and the Caribbean and adapted them to suit their American environment. For example, the fox replaced the hyena as one of the main characters, because in that period, you could not find the latter in the United States. When Harris started working at the Atlanta Constitution in September 1876, he began writing about slave songs, plantation lore, and southern adages from the perspective of a fictional character named Uncle Remus. Harris based these writings on his interactions with the enslaved men and women at Turnwold. During his career, Harris published several collections of Uncle Remus tales, including Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation (1881). He became one of the most famous American authors of the time, second only to Mark Twain.
The charming Uncle Remus stories made an impression on Walt Disney, who once wrote, “Ever since I have had anything to do with making motion pictures, I have wanted to bring the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris to the screen.” The Disney corporation negotiated with the Harris family for film rights in the late 1930s, and in 1946, Disney released Song of the South. The movie tells the story of a white woman named Sally and her son, Johnny, who go stay with Sally’s mother on her plantation in post-Civil War Georgia. During his visit, Johnny befriends Uncle Remus (played by James Baskett), a black man living and working on the plantation. Uncle Remus offers Johnny a series of life lessons, which Song of the South brings to life with animated sequences featuring Br’er Bear, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Rabbit. You might be familiar with the story of Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear using a tar-baby to trap Br’er Rabbit. What a sticky situation!
Despite its inventive use of color and technology, Song of the South did not get the positive reception Disney hoped for. It is true that in 1948, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and Baskett became the first African-American man to win an honorary Academy Award for his performance, but Song of the South flopped at the box office. New York Times journalist Bosley Crowther wrote in 1946 that “the ratio of ‘live’ to cartoon action is approximately two to one—and that is approximately the ratio of its mediocrity to charm.” The film’s representations of black people and plantation life also attracted quite a bit of controversy. Disney intended to capitalize on the success of the blockbuster film Gone with the Wind (1939) by making his own movie about the “Old South.” Early twentieth-century Hollywood films about the South before and after the Civil War often depicted plantations as utopian paradises populated by kind white owners and “Uncle Toms,” or happy, dependent, and submissive black people. These tropes obscured a less savory reality. In most cases, enslaved and free black men and women experienced horrific cruelties while living and working on plantations. Many rebelled against this brutal treatment by running away, perpetrating violence against whites, or engaging in more subtle acts of resistance.
By the time of Song of the South’s debut, images of pleasant plantations and loyal black workers had fallen out of fashion. During World War II, the federal government’s Office of War Information promoted more positive, racially progressive images in order to distance America from the openly racist Nazis and boost the morale of black soldiers fighting to protect democracy. It is important to note that black people in the twentieth-century United States continued to endure violence and social, cultural, economic, and legal discrimination. Segregation laws, for example, prevented Baskett and Hattie McDaniel, another black actor in the film, from attending Song of the South’s premiere in Atlanta. Even so, the film’s offensive stereotypes did not jive well with the immediate post-war context.
Song of the South enjoyed much more success during its theater re-releases in 1972, 1980, and 1986. Beginning in the late 1940s, Disney circulated the animated portions and music from Song of the South, and people developed powerful nostalgic attachments to the film. Some of you might remember Disney’s Uncle Remus Little Golden Books, with their characteristic shiny book spine, featuring the Br’er critters. Song of the South’s animated sequences appeared in the Disneyland television show, and Mickey Mouse Club singers recorded and released their own versions of the film’s popular songs. In this period, Disney also had a widespread reputation as a promoter of family values and wholesome entertainment.
Song of the South’s lucrative run in the 1970s and 80s also resulted from a changing political and social climate in the United States. The civil rights movement produced major advancements for racial equality. Over time, however, many white Americans started to feel like the movement had “gone too far.” White conservative politicians, including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, actively promoted white resentment of minority groups, who they argued were lazy and dependent on affirmative action, welfare, and a bloated federal government. While some people picked up on the film’s racial stereotypes and rejected or boycotted its re-release, others made the case that the film promoted racial harmony and should not be held to modern standards.
Still, the controversy over Song of the South was enough for Disney to stop re-releasing the film in theaters or circulating it on VHS. The loveable animated animals from Song of the South still live on, though, in our favorite log flume ride. Most people assume that the Br’er animals originated with Splash Mountain, but these characters and their silly antics pre-date the ride by more than a century.
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Mary Ann Galante, “Dizzying Even for Disney: Long-Awaited Water Ride Opens Quietly, Receives Good Grades From Thrill-Seeking Park Patrons,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1989, p. 1, 6.
Bosley Crowther, “The Screen; ‘Song of the South,’ Disney Film Combining Cartoons and Life, Opens of Palace—Abbott and Costello of Loew’s Criterion,” New York Times, November 28, 1946.
Walt Disney, “Walt’s Old Dream Comes True,” Washington Post, December 22, 1946, p. S8.
Walter M. Brasch, Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the ‘Cornfield Journalist’: The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris (2000)