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Rhett Wickham: Beggar at the Feast
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So it is that once again the nexus of animation is made to look like the nadir because of corporate-white-guy guilt. If executives continue to insist on claiming some divine sensitivity to race, class and gender then they really should start by risking their own privilege and reinvesting their bonuses into making the Disney channel's afternoon programming resemble something other than the first hour of "Bamboozled."

Come on! Everybody knows the film was conceived in a less socially evolved time. If you truly don't think people will "consider it in the context that it was made" then frame it for them. "Song of the South" deserves a proper seat at the celebration of a more evolved Disney - a U.S release on every available format for everyone to see. Now is the ideal time to do it, when you're riding high, when you've done the right thing, when you've proved that you're serious about change, and you're progressive (in a non-Southern Baptist boycott way) and that you do indeed have vision. Be done with it, so long as you "done" it right. That means clearing a place, up front, at a nice big redwood adult table, not tucked in with distant cousins chaperoned by their Uncle Leonard at the tin table, always apologizing for them. No, sit it down to a politically and socially checkered cloth laid out in the full light of day, where grown- ups are talking about grown-up things, and willing to disagree and be comfortable with leaving it up to each person to form their own opinion, everyone walking away calling each other family. You know ... families can argue and still survive, really.

Enough with the concept of a disclaimer, or those horrible stories of placing clips from "That's So Raven" on the same disc so that you can prove "we've come a long way, tar baby." Have you seen "That's So Raven"? Because if you really want to worry about something not being seen "in context" then run that in prime time ten years from now and explain your social sensitivity! Instead, tap someone with some character and some substance, and hopefully some sense of decorum and a relative sense of humor, and have them moderate a panel that includes all the perspectives. Anyone who lives in Hollywood and works in Hollywood knows that even the most radical of the right or left are always willing to participate if they're paid for it. If you need the approval of the intellectual snobs back east then tap Charlie Rose, at whose table pretty much everyone short of Fidel Castro and the Pope have taken a comfortable and frank seat at one time or another. Or stay with a local guy, Tavis Smiley, an astute and amicable host whose articulate presence belies all attempts to pin him down or pigeon-hole him into any one camp. Gather together Dr. Cosby, Aaron McGruder, Maya Angelou, Roy Disney, Floyd Norman, Spike Lee, Roger Ebert and Dr. Bruce Gordon. Heck, Spielberg's off the hook and Jeffrey's on his own, so get Steven in there - I'd wager any amount of money he'd say yes. None of the principals from the original cast and crew are alive to do "commentary" so put all these other pundits in a room to watch the film together and let's hear their thoughts! Mind you that crowd would be ten thousand times more interesting than the film, even if they were playing celebrity poker, as the movie admittedly plays too sentimentally even for people who cry at Hallmark cards.

While assembling such notables is unlikely, of course, the idea is to stop avoiding the debate and have it in the open. Discuss all the aspects of concern, cases for support, personal likes and dislikes that come up for celebrities, scholars, artists and pundits alike. Shine light on all perspectives and seize the opportunity to prove that Disney can be sophisticated and can weather a forum for looking at something in a very grown up way. Let every blue ray, two disc, on demand version educate and illuminate at the same time it entertains. Don't pretend it isn't "Song of the South" and don't bog us down with the typical extras that are loaded into too many DVD's these days, we're wiser now and we can spot the ones that are barely deserving of our time (we've figured out that we can skip right over things like Inside the making of Return to Gilligan's Island.) Instead of touting "The Proud Family" as proof of animation having changed its wicked ways, let Bruce Smith join Glen Keane in talking about why Ollie Johnston's and Milt Kahl's animation on Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear and Br'er Rabbit remains unparalleled to this day. Let Chris Sanders and John Lasseter talk about Bill Peet's genius for boarding the best animated sequences readable at fifty paces.

You can even include Leonard Maltin, he is the dean of American Film and he's a great scholar, after all. But rather than send Leonard out in front of the curtain like Neville Chamberlain, let him talk about how the great Oscar winning actress Hattie McDaniel died with one last request - to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery along with her film industry peers, a request that (then) cemetery owner Jack Roth refused because McDaniel was black. (Nearly half a century later the cemetery's new owners sought to correct that wrong and approached her family about moving her remains to a plot in Hollywood as she had wanted. They respectfully declined, out of a desire not to disturb the actress's final resting place, but they accepted Hollywood Forever's offer to build a stately cenotaph that overlooks a reflecting pond on the grounds, and which reads in part "to honor her last wish", with an inscription from her grandnephew.) Invest in a good documentary segment hosted by someone of the caliber of Charles Ogletree that discusses reconstruction and indentured servitude in the American South, so that the context of the film can be better understood, as too many people - both critics and supporters alike - incorrectly assume it to take place during the American Civil War. Let no conclusions be drawn, no single opinion be more important than any other, and allow consumers to bring "Song of the South" home where they can do something unheard of in Hollywood (or Washington, for that matter) - listen to all sides and then watch it and decide for themselves.

Sadly, Disney bagged on this one in the most pathetic and sorry back-peddling apologist fashion imaginable. I suppose that's better than squandering it by drop-shipping it to retailers somewhere between the fanfareless re-release of a "Weecha, the Raccoon" and "The Horse Without A Head." But the deed is done, for now at least, and it's absurd to think that Iger will change his mind any time soon. It's a shame, really. The animated inhabitants are all over the ten parks. Of course, they remain the only disconnected denizens of their own "land" in not one but three ride incarnations that don't appear to have any legitimate reason to be called "Disney" except for the licensed products in the souvenir shop by the exit. It's not like the Briar Patch just spontaneously generated in one corner of Disneyland. Yet, unlike all their costumed counterparts, Br'er Rabbit and the gang have no film-based birth right on the shelves that can be watched over, and over, and over on an iPod. Surely the net-present value must have some appeal, no? The least he could have done was lean on the strength of one of those clever departing MBA's and make us forget "Song of the South" by filling the shelves of Target with a two-disc set that includes a direct-to-video movie called "Return to Splash Mountain" that explains the Br'er critters origins in some homogenized version where they all sound slightly more Liverpudlian than Alabamee' bound (thanks to their new neighbors from the Hundred Acre Woods.) Ah, but I forgot - cheap video sequels would maybe increase earnings a bit but you'd never put that in front of what you think are your ethics and your integrity.

Doubtless this question will come up again in a few years, and when it does Disney must consider this: we're a smarter and much savvier culture. Robert Rodriguez in his brilliant book "The Browning of America" points to a multi-heritage generation that self-identifies in ways the Southern Reconstruction never could have imagined. They're smarter then any older generation gives them credit for, and they can smell avoidance at ten paces. That's a future you can't stop, no matter what color you paint Splash Mountain. So bring it on, and bring it on in style. We know how to talk to our children (and frankly they're getting very good at talking to us) and we know how to talk to our neighbors, and we know how to recognize the real thing when it comes along. We promise not to faint if a vintage and long-debated Disney film were to once and for all be given to us with some substance and some sincerity and no missing footage. Oh, Bob (insert Mary Tyler Moore impersonation) if only you'd gone ahead with the November 2006 release, then all this sturm und drang would prove for naught, provided the film got the treatment it deserves - and that means something more substantive than little pictures of Brandy pasted over a pie-eyed Mickey to give him pupils, like a "new and improved" label on a box of detergent. Of all the favors Iger and Jobs could have placed on the guest tables to be unwrapped once the FCC gives their blessing this summer, the one truly memorable and classy thing would have been to mark the occasion by bringing "Song of the South" back into the Disney family fold with dignity.

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Rhett Wickham is an occasional editorial contributor to and the publication Tales From The Laughing Place. He works as creative development and story consultant in Los Angeles, where he lives with his husband, artist Peter Narus.. Mr. Wickham is the founder and principal of Creative Development Ink©® working with screenwriters and story artists in film and animation, and was the creative executive and one of the credited story contributors who shepherded an upcoming feature film that will debut at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Prior to coming to California to work for studios such as DreamWorks Feature Animation, he worked as an actor and stage director in NYC. Following graduate studies at Tisch School of the Arts, he was named as a directing fellow with the Drama League of New York as one of American Theatre's most promising early career directors. In 2003 he was honored with the Nine Old Men Award from Laughing Place readers, "for reminding us why Disney Feature Animation is the heart and soul of Disney."

The opinions expressed by our Rhett Wickham, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the future plans of the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.

-- Posted April 25, 2006

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