In a sign of Disney changing with the times, if ever so slowly, The Walt Disney Company announced Thursday that the iconic Splash Mountain theme park ride at both Disneyland and Disney World is about to get an update and be re-themed to represent the overlooked The Princess and the Frog (2009) animated feature.
This decision reverses the image of a ride that has come under increasing scrutiny for decades due to its theming around Song of the South and the racist caricatures represented by Walt Disney and Joel Chandler Harris’ interpretations of Br’er Rabbit. As a consequence, the new Splash Mountain will feature songs from Princess and the Frog and follow the story of Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen’s adventures through Mardi Gras in New Orleans as frogs, culminating in their final kiss.
According to Disney this redesign has been in the works since 2019 and the company has held off announcing further details, including when construction begins or when the new ride will open, due to the coronavirus.
“With this longstanding history of updating attractions and adding new magic, the retheming of Splash Mountain is of particular importance today,” Disney said in a statement. “The new concept is inclusive – one that all of our guests can connect with and be inspired by, and it speaks to the diversity of the millions of people who visit our parks each year.”
This may be but Disney, unlike its competitors at Universal Studios, are famously recalcitrant about re-theming or tearing down existing rides. While it happens, the logic behind keeping rides as old as Peter Pan’s Flight from the 1950s, or The Haunted Mansion from the 1960s, running is that parents and grandparents can pass down their beloved childhood memories to the next generation.
However, the entire problem with Splash Mountain has always been what it makes so beloved. Opening in Disneyland in 1989, it actually was a repurpose itself of leftover animatronic animal critters from a ride called America Sings. It told the story of Br’er Rabbit’s escape from Br’er Fox and B’rer Bear. However, the animatronic animals all spoke in a thick, patronizing approximation of a 19th century African American dialect, as that is how Harris wrote it down in his stories, which were his versions of oral traditions told among slaves and former slaves in the American South. He also was an apologist for the Antebellum era, endorsing the notion that Black Americans were happier as slaves.
The Walt Disney movie Song of the South (1946) reinforced this notion to the extreme. While the film is set shortly after the Civil War, all of the People of Color in the film, including narrator Uncle Remus (James Baskett), are depicted as simple-minded or simply magical, and exceedingly content with still working on the same plantation they did before the Civil War. On the subject of slavery, Uncle Remus even calls it the good ol’ days.
The movie was rereleased several times into theaters after 1946, including in 1986 for the 40th anniversary. Indeed, it played better in the ‘70s and ‘80s than it did in the ‘40s when it was received rather tepidly, even in Hollywood, for its obvious racism—though Walt used his considerable political leverage to get Baskett awarded an honorary Oscar in 1948, even though the film was a year past eligibility for recognition by then. In any event, its warm welcome in ’86 from nostalgic Baby Boomers who saw it growing up likely helped pave the way for the endearing popularity of Splash Mountain, which is unto itself an extremely fun theme park ride with multiple fake out waterfall drops before the big one takes you grimly under a pair of hungry vultures and then sends the guests flying dowanward.
The Disney Company said this has been in the works since 2019, and one has to wonder if this is due to renewed scrutiny recently brought to Splash Mountain, particularly by Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast, which devoted its entire fall season picking apart the legacy of Song of the South, culminating in an hour-long examination of Splash Mountain. Further given the recent scrutiny of other Southern revisionist Hollywood movies like Gone with the Wind (1939), one wonders if Disney felt even more compelled since Song of the South made the Scarlett O’Hara movie look open-minded by comparison. It’s for that reason, Disney has sheepishly (and some might say cowardly) has hidden the movie in its vault for the past 30 years.
In any event, it’s worth celebrating the fact Princess and the Frog, the only Disney Princess movie to star a Black woman, is getting some tender love and attention by the redesign that will still wow all children, and more importantly not make some of them (or their parents) uncomfortable. And while “Zippity Doo-Dah” might be gone, the Disney World variation of the ride already has a Nawlins theme. So welcome back Down in New Orleans.