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Thursday, January 7, 2016

January 7, 2016: DisneyStudying: Splash Mountain

[In November, I finally visited DisneyWorld for the first time, accompanying my 9 and 8 year old sons. We hit the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios in a whirlwind three days—and as you might expect, this AmericanStudier found a great deal of interest in all three places. So this week I’ll DisneyStudy five such details, leading up to a special weekend post on themes parks in America!]
On what’s present in and absent from a playful water ride and its contexts.
On the map, the Magic Kingdom attraction Splash Mountain looks like just another log flume ride. The boys and I have been to our fair share of amusement parks, and just about every one has had a log flume ride, a watery trip in a boat made to look like a carved-out log that ends with a long fall and big splash. There’s something about the experience and sensation that’s just universal (although I highly recommend waiting until the weather is warm enough if you go on such a ride in the New England area; perhaps I should add practical parenting advice to the list of topics at this blog’s masthead!), and we’ve certainly fallen under its spell many times. So, having not done my due diligence as a researcher I suppose, I was expecting more of that familiar log flume-y goodness from Splash Mountain—but what I got instead was an attraction that literally makes the riders part of the Br’er Rabbit folktales, with each twist and turn presenting a new moment in the stories and even the long fall representing a key climax of the Br’er Wolf saga (Rabbit’s trickster-esque escape into the briar patch).
Br’er Rabbit, Wolf, and all their friends and foes are created with the same kinds of animatronic technologies and performances that I’ve written about in the last couple posts, and on which many of the park’s spectacular rides (such as Pirates of the Caribbean) also rely. They’re extremely well done, capturing the personalities and tones of the Br’er Rabbit tales in a way that’s both timeless yet still compelling for young audiences jaded by video games and film special effects, and (as did each of the attractions about which I’ve written this series) led to some great conversations with the boys about the stories and histories behind the ride. But of course, that’s where things get extremely complicated—because although the ride itself references none of this, the Br’er Rabbit stories are inextricably linked to the controversial work of Joel Chandler Harris in his Uncle Remus books; and because it was those Uncle Remus books that were adapted into the most controversial Disney film of all time, The Song of the South (1946), which features both animated Br’er Rabbit tales and live action, well, plantation tradition nostalgia.
I wrote, in the post hyperlinked under “Joel Chandler Harris…” above, about the question of whether Song of the South should be released from the vault in which it currently resides; to sum up, my answer was that it should be but that it certainly could use more parental supervision than your average Disney animated film. Certainly it seems odd (as my Temple University colleague and friend Jaime Lynn Longo recently noted) that the Magic Kingdom features a hugely popular ride based on a film that virtually no American kids would currently be able to see. Yet at the same time, I would argue that the ride also could use more guidance—for both kids learning about the Br’er Rabbit folktales and adults who might want to talk about it with them—then it currently features. Like any folktale character, Br’er Rabbit is partly about universal stories and themes—but also and just as importantly about the particular cultural and social worlds and communities out of which he and those stories emerged. Whether featured in a ride or portrayed in a film, he and his friends need those contexts to have their true meaning and power, and neither hiding those portrayals nor failing to engage the contexts is going to help communicate those multi-layered stories.
Last DisneyStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of Disney or theme parks you’d AmericanStudy?

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