Picks and Pans Review: Song of the South

updated 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first feature film from Disney to mix live actors with animation, this re-release is guaranteed to pump some zip-a-dee-doo-dah into the holiday season for family audiences. Based on characters created by Joel Chandler Harris, a 19th-century Atlanta newspaperman, the film focuses on the character of Uncle Remus, a former slave who delighted the children on the plantation with stories of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, Br'er Bear and Tar Baby. These denizens of the briar patch spring to vigorous life through Wilfred Jackson's charming animation. The live-action contingent is well represented by Ruth Warrick (now a regular on the ABC soap All My Children) whose strained relationship with husband Eric Rolf disturbs their young son, nicely played by Bobby Driscoll (who died of a heart attack in 1968 and was buried in a pauper's grave). The boy finds comfort in the fables of Uncle Remus. In this pivotal role, James Baskett—who died of a heart ailment two years after the film was released—acts with such an abundance of warmth, wisdom and dignified delight that he won an honorary Oscar. Why he wasn't nominated for a real one remains a blot on the Academy; Baskett could not attend the film premiere in Atlanta since no local hotel would book him. Allegations over the years that the movie itself is racist in its depiction of slavery and the minstrel tradition seem off the mark. Though Disney re-releases its classics every few years, the studio pulled Song of the South out of circulation during the 1960s to deflect any debate on the subject. That decision may have tainted a period piece that actually undercuts stereotypical thinking. No white character in the film is possessed of anything like this former slave's principles or sense of self-worth. Uncle Remus does more than just sing and tell tales; he listens and understands. There's a child in all of us who should not be deprived of the pleasure of his company. (G)

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