Seven-year-old Johnny is excited about what he believes to be a vacation at his grandmother's Georgia plantation with his parents, John Sr. and Sally. When they arrive at the plantation, he discovers that his parents are separating and he is to live in the country with his mother and grandmother while his father returns to Atlanta to continue his controversial editorship in the city's newspaper. Johnny, distraught because his father has never left him or his mother before, leaves that night under cover of darkness and sets off for Atlanta with only a small hobo sack.
As Johnny sneaks away from the plantation, he is attracted by the voice of Uncle Remus, telling tales of a character named Brer Rabbit. Curious, Johnny hides behind a nearby tree to spy on the group of people sitting around the fire. By this time, word has gotten out that Johnny is gone and the servants, who are sent out to find him, ask if Uncle Remus has seen the boy. Uncle Remus replies that he's with him. Shortly afterwards, he catches up with Johnny who sits crying on a nearby log. He befriends the young boy and offers him some food for the journey, taking him back to his cabin.
As Uncle Remus cooks, he mentions Brer Rabbit again and the boy, curious, asks him to tell him more. After Uncle Remus tells a tale about Brer Rabbit's attempt to run away from home, Johnny takes the advice and changes his mind about leaving the plantation, letting Uncle Remus take him back to his mother.
Johnny makes friends with Toby, a little black boy who lives on the plantation, and Ginny Favers, a poor white neighbor. However, Ginny's two older brothers, Joe and Jake, are not friendly at all. They constantly bully Ginny and Johnny. When Ginny gives Johnny a puppy her brothers want to drown, a fight breaks out among the three boys.
Heartbroken because his mother won't let him keep the puppy, Johnny takes the dog to Uncle Remus and tells him of his troubles. Uncle Remus takes the dog in and delights Johnny and his friends with the fable of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, stressing how one shouldn't go messing around with something they have no business with in the first place. Johnny heeds the advice of how Brer Rabbit used reverse psychology on Brer Fox and begged the Favers boys not to tell their mother about the dog. They do and get a good spanking for it. Enraged, both boys go to the plantation and tell Johnny's mother, who is upset that Uncle Remus kept the dog despite her order, unbeknownst to Uncle Remus. She orders the old man not to tell any more stories to her son.
The day of Johnny's birthday arrives. Johnny picks up Ginny to take her to his party. Ginny's mother used her wedding dress to make her a beautiful dress for the party. On the way there, however, Joe and Jake pick another fight. Ginny gets pushed and ends up in a mud puddle. With her dress ruined, Ginny refuses to go to the party. Johnny doesn't want to go either, especially since his father won't be there. Uncle Remus discovers the two dejected children and cheers them by telling the story of Brer Rabbit and his "Laughing Place". When Uncle Remus returns to the plantation with the children, Sally meets them on the way and is angry at Johnny for not having attended his own birthday party. Ginny mentions Uncle Remus telling them a story and Sally draws the line, warning Uncle Remus not to spend time with Johnny any more.
Uncle Remus, saddened by the misunderstanding of his good intentions, packs his bags and leaves for Atlanta. Johnny, seeing Uncle Remus leaving from a distance, rushes to intercept him, taking a shortcut through the pasture where he is attacked and seriously injured by the resident bull.
While Johnny hovers between life and death, his father returns and reconciles with Sally. But Johnny calls for Uncle Remus, who had returned in all the commotion. Uncle Remus began telling a tale of Brer Rabbit and the Laughing Place again, and the boy miraculously survives.
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I believe this film is much more intricately involved than some may realize or remember. Walt Disney did quite well in his first step into a real-life drama story, having previously only dealt with cartoon stories. Parallels abound and make this movie one of Walt Disney's finest, combining a life-like drama with fanciful tales and weaving them into one seamless gem.
In the opening scene, as Johnny and his parents travel on the road to the plantation, John and Sally reminisc about their childhood there and how an old resident named Uncle Remus used to tell them tales about Brer Rabbit. This establishes the presence of what was once a strong bond between Uncle Remus, Sally, and John. As John leaves the plantation this breaks the link between him and Sally, and also begins the slow decent into the story's layers of conflicts.
Early on, as Johnny and Uncle Remus hold hands as they return to his cabin, it is clear to see the racial prejudice of its day has not affected this child. The story Uncle Remus tells Johnny about Brer Rabbit running away is an obvious analogy he has drawn to Johnny's current situation and he smartly applies it and returns home. Sally gets word that Uncle Remus is with the boy and is relieved to see him when Uncle Remus returns with him. Uncle Remus covers for the boy and Sally is only minorly irritated that Johnny had left the house to visit the old man for a story at such a late hour. When Toby hands Johnny's hobo sack to Sally, however, she realizes her son was planning to run away and sees how Uncle Remus covered up for him. For Sally, this creates a mistrust in Uncle Remus, and the link between her and him strains.
Immediately thereafter, Uncle Remus and Miss Doshy have a short dialogue concerning the boy's troubles. It is at this point one sees that the two elders of the plantation share a common wisdom, concern and confidence in each other, even through their differences. This is one of the greatest parts of the film in that it shows the gap bridged between races and how wisdom and friendship overcome such an ugly boundary.
Johnny befriends Ginny and accepts the offer to keep Teenchy, the dog Joe and Jake wish to drown. At this point, a parallel can be drawn to Joe and Jake as Brer Bear and Brer Fox for obvious reasons: Joe, being tall, burly and dull-witted with brown hair, and Jake, being a little more scrawny, but wiser and faster, with sandy hair. Johnny, of course, is Brer Rabbit, "being little an' without much strength." The second Uncle Remus story sequence makes this parallel clear as Brer Rabbit puts his foot in it, quite literally. Hitting the Tar Baby was something he had no business doing, just as messing with the Favers boys Johnny had no business doing. The only way for Brer Rabbit to get out of the mess was to play reverse psychology on Brer Fox and beg him NOT to be flung into the briar patch, which was exactly where he wanted to go. The thorns were enticing to the fox, but he did not think of the final outcome.
Joe and Jake, who have just been tricked in the same way by Johnny who applied the story to his own predicament, go to the plantation to tell Sally despite Uncle Remus trying to ward them off at the door. Sally comes out and suddenly Uncle Remus is now in the middle once again. The Favers tell Sally about the dog and how he tricked them into getting spanked. Uncle Remus covers up for Johnny again by telling her about keeping the dog for him. But before he can explain that Johnny never told him that she had ordered him to give the dog back to the Favers, she cuts him off, suggesting he should refrain from telling Johnny any stories for awhile. This breaks the poor old man's heart. Not only is she forbidding Uncle Remus from doing his favorite thing, but through this denial she is breaking off her childhood link with him.
Depressed, he still defends Johnny yet again the next day when the Favers boys get into a brawling fight with Johnny on the way to his birthday party. Johnny is angry, Ginny is crying, and Uncle Remus is downright disheartened. But they all sit down on a log beside the mill pond and before you know it, Uncle Remus' third story, The Laughing Place, rolls out and all three are happy again. He broke Sally's request because no one deserves to be unhappy and he had the answer. They meet up with Sally on the way back to the plantation and, upon hearing he has told another story to Johnny, forbids Remus from coming into contact with with the boy at all. This crushes him, and with that Uncle Remus decides to leave because all he can see is he is not wanted.
We can now see Uncle Remus ignoring his own advice and stories. His self-pity and depression get the best of him. But perhaps the real reason is much deeper. To be able to reach beyond racial differences through his stories and receive appreciation for it gave him a deeper satisfaction and allowed him to spend a brief period of time in equality. When Sally rejected it, she denied him of both his happiness and his human right of equality. He set off for Atlanta in hopes of finding others who would be more understanding and appreciative of his stories, but moreso to get back at Sally for her stubbornness and blindness. The story of Brer Rabbit runs away is now reflected in his own actions.
All this builds up to the climax of the movie. Suddenly, Johnny realizes where his Laughing Place is. He runs to Uncle Remus' cabin only to find it bare. In this moment Johnny has both been denied of his Laughing Place and his happiness, which was derived from Uncle Remus. Uncle Remus focused merely on Sally's rejection and not the domino effect it would have on her son. Distraught and refusing to let Uncle Remus go, Johnny crosses the bull pasture to intercept the departing coach and gets hit by the bull.
On his deathbed, he calls over and over for Uncle Remus, the only part of Johnny's life that is still of any value to him. Uncle Remus is summoned for downstairs and when he returns, he begins to paint a picture of his cabin through his soft storytelling voice. One can only imagine the conflict going on in Sally's mind now. What she had so cruelly rejected was now her son's link to survival. Johnny opens his eyes and sees Uncle Remus, then looks to his left, where his father is standing. This boosts him further and it is clear to see things are looking better. At this point, the father figure Uncle Remus had taken on in John's absence is passed back to Johnny's true father, and Uncle Remus steps back. It is then that Sally and John both speak of Uncle Remus' stories to the little boy, and in that moment a reconciliation is drawn between both Sally and John, and Sally and Uncle Remus's relationships. Miss Doshy and Uncle Remus share the final moments together with that same common wisdom they shared earlier, and things are looking "mighty satisfactual."