Little Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) is accompanied by his mother (Ruth Warrick) and father to the plantation home of his grandmother (Lucile Watson), and on the way his father tells him of the times he enjoyed there as a boy, and the tales told to him by Uncle Remus (James Baskett). This makes Johnny all the more eager to arrive there, but when they do, there's bad news as his father will not be staying with them as he has pressing business in Atlanta. Johnny is dismayed at this, and that night he makes up his mind to run away, so taking a bundle of belongings he slips out of the mansion and begins his journey. Along the way, however, he is attracted by the songs of the workers, and especially the sound of a story being told... the story of Br'er Rabbit...
Over the years the Walt Disney company seemed to grow ashamed of Song of the South due to the portrayal of its uncomplaining black characters and the fact it takes place just after the time that slavery was abolished, although no mention of slavery or even segregation is in the film, meaning that some viewers could be mistaken for thinking that it was set before then. The plots were based on the Br'er Rabbit stories which were written by Joel Chandler Harris, a white writer, and were undeniably popular at the time they were published, but now seem patronising and outdated, to say the least. The result is a determinedly non-controversial rendering of a controversial period and situation.
The trouble with Song of the South is that it was held up as a cause celebre among film buffs who saw its lack of appearance on video or DVD as "Political Correctness Gone Mad", when the type of person who would want to own a copy wouldn't exactly be the type of person who would be championing other, more authentic aspects of African American culture normally. But what of the film itself? Is it worth all the fuss? If you're expecting a full hour and a half of cartoons then you'll find this a letdown, as only three stories are adapted and they are comparitively brief; the rest is a sugary sentimental telling of the usual Disney dysfunctional family.
As Johnny's father is away (and we never are told the true reason for this, although the marriage seems to be in trouble), he needs a surrogate father figure, and the storyteller Uncle Remus steps into that role. Played with immense charm and kindness by Baskett, he's a thoroughly decent fellow who is in touch with nature, has a sense of humour and justice and is respected by all. All except Johnny's mother that is, who naturally sees anyone who exercises her son's imagination as a bad influence, and after two (two!) stories she decides that he is filling Johnny's head with nonsense and should stay away from him.
Because of this, Johnny's life is improbably put in danger for the tear-jerking finale, but before we get there, the best parts are undoubtedly the cartoon segments. Baskett sings the famous "Zip-a-dee-do-dah" surrounded by animated animals, and Br'er Rabbit outwits Br'er Fox and the particularly obtuse Br'er Bear, in the time honoured tradition of the wily smaller animal avoiding being eaten by the larger. The rendering of these characters is typically up to the high Disney standard, and just as typically with Disney isn't all that funny, but they are the highlights. Johnny's troubles with mean kids and lack of friends are predictably resolved by the end, and the black people are often portrayed with more affection than the whites - Johnny's mother is notably unsympathetic for much of the time. But Song of the South is minor Disney, and would have been as forgotten as the likes of Melody Time if it weren't for the anti-P.C. obsessives and the red-faced way in which its parent tries to sweep it under the carpet. It's not exactly Birth of a Nation.