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Anyone who has experienced Vernon Chatman's pop culture impact knows he's not one to tiptoe past sensitive and controversial subject matter. Having spent 20+ years as a South Park writer and producer, Chatman is also known for the dark absurdist comedies Wonder Showzen, Xavier: Renegade Angel and Adult Swim's hyper-brilliant The Shivering Truth, which is currently airing its excellent second season. When CinemaBlend recently spoke with Chatman about Season 2, I hypothetically asked the animation-friendly which classic Disney film he'd be interesting in remaking through the Shivering Truth lens, and his answer was almost painfully on brand.
Perhaps unexpectedly to anyone but Vernon Chatman's most diehard followers, the Shivering Truth writer and co-director chose the highly contentious (and Oscar-winning) Song of the South as the Disney film he'd most like to tackle for today's audiences. Check out Chatman's answer and explanation below:
Yes, no question. Immediate reaction, of course: Song of the South. I would do it. When I was a kid – I'm half-black and half-white – my parents were aggressively against Disney. They were just disgusted by all things Disney. I think it just represented, especially in their generation, some cultural grotesquery. I was just a kid, you know. They also told me there was no Santa; they just said, 'Look, we're gonna lie to you. It's not real,' and I desperately wanted it, you know, saying, 'No, he's real!' So we would never go to Disney movies whenever they came out. But when I was a kid, they rereleased Song of the South, the last time they ever acknowledged it existed in America, but I think you can still get it in Japan. My parents, who would also go to anything and support anything in the culture that was black, were like, 'Disney did a black movie. Great, let's go see it.' We went to go see it as like, 'Yes, this is our black [celebration],' like 'We're gonna go watch Roots, and we're gonna see Song of the South.' It didn't work out. [Laughs.]
I can't imagine how baffled Vernon Chatman's parents must have been during that rare Disney-infused trip to the theater. Granted, Song of the South's was re-released back in 1986 to coincide with both the film's 40th anniversary and the pre-construction phase of Disneyland's Splash Mountain, so it's not like the Internet was around to quickly research how problematic the film's Uncle Remus depiction really was.
Plus, Vernon Chatman's parents wouldn't have been able to watch the movie on VHS or Betamax, since Disney has famously avoided home video releases of Song of the South here in the U.S. He did correctly note the film's ongoing availability in Japan, though it's also in other countries where Disney decided slavery wasn't such a controversial part of those cultures.
Song of the South is most certainly on the opposite end of the racial spectrum as the Roots miniseries and Alex Haley's novel, even if it might outwardly appear to be an aw-shucks tale about a white boy, an older black man, and some animated animals. A lot of the controversy surrounding the film stems from Disney not specifying the post-Civil War timeline of Joel Chandler Harris' original tales, making it seem like Uncle Remus and other black characters were perfectly happy with life on the plantation. Definitely not the only troubling issue, mind you, but it's a big reason why you won't ever find the movie streaming on Disney+, even with the content warnings.
Vernon Chatman continued, bringing up how his age at the time affected this mindset, and the movie's specific appeal to younger age groups.
Again, I was a little, little kid. I didn't understand. I didn't know. But that's a crazy movie. Of course, my memories of it are probably all fucked up because I saw it so long ago, but that was a very fucked up movie. You know, the original stories are perversions of real African-American folk tales. So that the thing, it's just run through the Disney mill. It's just this crazy, creepy – if I remember correctly – reinforcement of some really sickening perspectives. Just gently, mildly, like, you know, titillatingly kid-like entertainment-wise sickening, which is the best kind.
Obviously, there are many black comedians and creators in Hollywood and beyond who would be ideal to tackle an envelope-pushing Song of the South remake, from Key & Peele's Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele to Phoebe Robinson to W Kamau Bell to Sasheer Zamata, just to name a few. But you can bet that Vernon Chatman (who voices South Park's fan-favorite Towelie) would deliver the most unique and unencumbered version of all, for better or worse. Especially if he utilized the warped stop-motion animation that makes The Shivering Truth such a standout series or, alternately, the human/puppetry mix of Wonder Showzen.
To be sure, the world absolutely does NOT need anyone to bring a Song of the South remake into the cultural zeitgeist, regardless of what comedic intent would be involved. But if the project ended up happening anyway, it would be surreally poetic it it got tackled by such a big part of South Park's creative team for two decades. Still, here's hoping Adult Swim keeps renewing The Shivering Truth to the point where Chatman would be too busy to craft any legitimate Uncle Remus-centric pitches for Disney, or any other studios for that matter.
Below, Vernon Chatman talks about how he approaches The Shivering Truth's storytelling structure, which offers some insight into why the Adult Swim hit is able to crawl around inside viewers' psyches so effectively.
Each time, we try to reinvent the DNA or the structural shape of how you tell your story, which a lot of TV, or a lot of media in general, [will do]. But in particular, a lot of TV comedy just kind of sets the formula. Some of the best shows, you know, they set a formula, and then they plug into that formula. I mean Seinfeld; it's amazing, but it's formula-based. And then this is just kind of based on going like, 'What if we'd just, like, reinvent a formula or a structural DNA, a structural skeleton, for how the DNA of storytelling is actually executed each time?'
That's how you get episodes like last week's "Nesslessness," in which The Good Place's Jason Mantzoukas plays a paranoia-stricken first responder who romances a sentient car that purposefully set up its own crash. Or the previous episode, in which a man takes home a sex doll modeled after his mother, which he spends more time with than his real mother. (Non-sexually, probably.) Suffice to say, any Disney movie that got re-envisioned by Vernon Chatman would be one of the most disturbing projects in whatever year/decade/century it got released.
With no sign of Song of the South getting released anytime soon, either in its original format or as a remake, fans of Vernon Chatman can definitely tune into new episodes of The Shivering Truth on Adult Swim every Sunday night/Monday morning at 12:00 a.m. ET, right after Rick and Morty.