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Inspired by the animation in one of the Walt Disney Co.'s most misguided cinematic works, Splash Mountain and its imagery rooted in the dated and racist 1946 film "Song of the South" will soon be a thing of the past. Walt Disney Imagineering unveiled plans on Thursday to re-theme the ride to its 2009 animated work "The Princess and the Frog," a fairy tale that stars the company's first Black princess.
Splash Mountain, its connection to a problematic text and its future have become a heated social media debate in this moment of cultural reassessment and nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd. A recent online campaign even called for a "Princess and the Frog" makeover to the log flume ride that's been a park favorite in large part due to its 52½-foot drop.
Disney said it has long discussed a Splash Mountain reimagining and cited the need for the ride to embrace a fresh, "inclusive" concept.
"The Princess and the Frog" was chosen as the new theme sometime last year, said Disney. The as-yet-unnamed refresh will be coming to Anaheim's Disneyland Park, where it will more closely tie into the nearby New Orleans Square. The change will also take place at the Magic Kingdom at Florida's Walt Disney World.
The timeline is dependent largely on how slowly or quickly society can resume a sense of normalcy as the nation wrestles with the current COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, Disneyland announced that its planned July 17 opening is now delayed.
"The Princess and the Frog" project is largely being overseen by Carmen Smith, Imagineering's vice president of creative development and inclusive strategies, and Charita Carter, who was instrumental in the development of Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, which recently opened at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. A version is under construction at Disneyland.
“We continually evaluate opportunities to enhance and elevate experiences for all our guests,” Smith said in a quote provided by Disney. “It is important that our guests be able to see themselves in the experiences we create. Because we consider ourselves constant learners, we go to great lengths to research and engage cultural advisors and other experts to help guide us along the way."
This isn't, of course, the first time Disney has tinkered with an attraction due to outdated cultural representations. Pirates of the Caribbean has received multiple updates, most recently one that removed a bridal auction scene in which women were relegated to property. Disneyland, which will soon turn 65, serves as a reflection of American pop culture, referencing our history with nostalgia while consistently challenging itself to reflect modern views.
Splash Mountain is arguably not the only Disneyland attraction in need of a rethink. With a movie inspired by the Jungle Cruise on the horizon, for instance, that ride's depiction of white America as colonialists and natives as savages will likely come under question. Also questionable are the exaggerated vocal caricatures of the Enchanted Tiki Room. But neither of those rides is connected to a lightning rod of a text such as "Song of the South," making this refresh more blatantly urgent in today's climate.
Narratively speaking, the attraction will begin sometime after the end of "The Princess and the Frog" film. The twisting log ride will follow Princess Tiana and Louis, a plump, trumpet-playing alligator, as they head to a Mardi Gras concert. The nine-minute journey will take guests through winding caverns and elaborate show scenes before arriving at a post-drop grand musical finale.
Although Imagineering said it's not ready to detail new show scenes, the stars of the film — Anika Noni Rose as Tiana and Michael-Leon Wooley as Louis — will reprise their roles, and their characters are seen in the concept art.
Chief among the concerns of Disneyland's cognoscenti will be the fate of the ride's large number of audio-animatronic critters, many of which were rescued from the 1970s-era America Sings attraction. Imagineering is still in the process of determining how, where or if those creatures can be repurposed.
Significantly more important, however, was ridding the attraction of its ties to its troubled past. Splash Mountain aims to avoid the least-savory aspects of "Song of the South" — inspired by the works of author Joel Chandler Harris, who depicted stories of a Black slave from an idyllic, white perspective — largely by avoiding the text rather than addressing it or attempting to reclaim it.
Splash Mountain opened in 1989, and its connection to "Song of the South" at the time didn't necessarily draw national ire. A preview and review of the attraction in The Times failed to explore its ties to the controversial film, one that remains in the Disney vault and that the company's current executive chairman, Bob Iger, has stated is "not appropriate in today’s world."
Originally titled "Zip-a-Dee River Run," a reference to the popular song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," itself a work with connections to a minstrel past, Splash Mountain was born of another cultural era, its themes chosen in part due to its location in Disneyland — currently Critter Country — and as a way to reuse audio-animatronics from America Sings.
Famed Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter, known for spearheading Big Thunder Mountain and his role in bringing the works of George Lucas into Disney parks, oversaw Splash Mountain's creation and has served as creative advisor to Imagineering on the project. Baxter voiced his support for the makeover in a statement provided by Disney. In the comment, Baxter argues that Disney in the early to mid-’80s was often forced to look to the company’s deep past for inspiration, as its own films of the era struggled to resonate on a larger cultural scale.
“When Splash Mountain came to life over 30 years ago, the wave of Disney Animation that started with 'The Little Mermaid' had not yet begun," Baxter said. "New stories would give us characters, music and wonderful places that now reside in the hearts of audiences everywhere. Following conversations with Imagineering’s leaders about the new attraction's scope and resources, I had a great sense of reassurance — the attraction will be one to be proud of ... bringing to life places, characters and music from the animated classic 'The Princess and the Frog.'"
Although "The Princess and the Frog," like any Disney animated work that aims to stretch cultural boundaries, was met with its own debates about representation, the film seems to have become more beloved as it has aged. Princess Tiana preaches hard work over wishing upon a star and keeps her eyes largely focused on personal goals rather than romance. Though by today's standards the prince character of Naveen is borderline predatory in his early flirtations, Tiana doesn't hesitate to label him a "spoiled little rich boy."
At this point, Disney hasn't said what other characters from the film may make an appearance. Imagineering's Carter cites Tiana's "courage and love" as the driving force of the new ride.