Disney Canon: Pocahontas (1995)

Pocahontas

Like I mentioned in the Lion King post, at the time of production, that movie was regarded as the “other” movie, the main focus at the studio was around the film that was certainly going to be Disney’s biggest and most prestigious success so far. Expectations were high for Pocahontas. Tim Brayton, a critic who I’m apparently quoting a lot lately, wrote a couple years ago on his piece on this movie that Michael Eisner, who was head of the Walt Disney Company back in the mid-nineties, went so far as to say Pocahontas was going to be the second animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture. Hindsight being 20/20 we know Pocahontas not only did not receive that nomination, but is considered the beginning of the end for the Disney Renaissance.

If not the end creatively, then definitely financially. The big statistic concerning the commercial aspect, is that Pocahontas was the first movie in the Renaissance (not counting The Rescuers Down Underbecause nobody does) that made less money than its predecessor. Up to that point, every movie every new movie meant more money and the sky seemed to be the limit. It would have been hard to live up to the record-breaking 312 Million grossed by The Lion King, let alone top it, and Pocahontas did gross a respectable 141 Million, but that was still less than Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Also, considering how gigantic The Lion King was, it would have been almost impossible for Pocahontas to not underperform, and for this very reason, nobody expected it not to. Excitement for Pocahontas was rampant at the production stage, but once Simba and company took over the world, people just knew this was not going to live up to its predecessor.

What’s more interesting than Pocahontas commercial history, though, is its critical reception. The big reason Eisner and the rest of people at Disney were so excited about Pocahontas, was that it was by far the most serious project the studio was getting into. Unlike most Disney movies, this was based on a historic subject, which having to do with the pledge of the Native Americans, seems very much in vogue with the politically correct nineties. Upon its release, reviews were mostly acceptable, although such a response was a big step down from the elicit reviews earned by the previous Disney movies. Gene Siskel, for example, was a big fan of the film precisely because of its historical gravitas, ambition and earnest message. His colleague Roger Ebert was a little cooler on the film, he liked it, but would rank it last amongst Disney’s (at that time) recent releases. On the opposite end of the spectrum, were people like the aforementioned Tim Brayton, who really disliked the film. Most of the people in this camp singled out the movie being historically dubious and very dull. I say they’re right on both counts, but would describe my position as standing somewhere in the middle. I see a lot of weak points in Pocahontas, but I don’t think it’s outright bad.

For starters, and this is a point where there should be absolutely no debate whatsoever, Pocahontas is one of the most beautifully animated films of all time. If this was the movie everyone at Disney was working their asses off to make, then it shows. I could just write the world beautiful over and over again to describe the visuals of the movie. The art direction, with its stylish tall trees and its shifting color palette, is something I could look at for days. The character animation is also, for the most part, fantastic. Some characters are better than others, I particularly find the work done on John Smith inconsistent, but mostly appropriately effective, and sometimes outstanding. Pocahontas herself is, in my opinion, the best animated human character of this period. From her realistic but somewhat stylistic design, to the flowing way she moves, I have seldom seem such a well animated 2D character. Look at her here, for example:

Besides Pocahontas, the other outstanding work is found in the supporting animal sidekicks. I guess it was the serious tone of the movie that made the animators decide to have the animal characters not speak, still, no matter the reason, the decision is one of the best choices in the film. Racoon Meeko, bulldog Percy and hummingbird Flit are all well designed and superbly animated, always looking and feeling like the animals they represent, which is not only impressive because of Disney’s tendency to anthropomorphize its animal sidekicks (like Flounder in The Little Mermaid), but because of how much the humor in the movie is derived from the way these silent character’s move. Maybe the lack of quipping comedic characters ala The Genie or Timon and Pumba is what made people say this movie was boring and humorless, but I certainly appreciate the more silent and animation-driven approach to comedy here.

Last week I said The Lion King was the undoubted pinnacle of the Disney Renaissance as far as animation quality was concerned, now, I mostly stand by that statement, but I must recognize my memory was underestimating the visuals of Pocahontas. I don’t know how many times I’ll have to say this to get it out of my system, but Pocahontas is one beautiful movie. For all those people who think there is no room for hand-drawn animation in a world of abundant 3D enterprises, you have to see the craftsmanship in this movie. I don’t care how beautiful those Pixar movies look, this is pure magic. And, yes, I still would say The Lion King is ultimately a better looking film. The reasons why Pocahontas comes in a close second, and this will take us into my more critical views on the movie, is its lack of iconic imagery that serves the story. I talked last week about all those classic images in Lion King, of which you won’t find many in Pocahontas, and the reason why is the story.

There is, without question, a problem with the story of Pocahontas. This is one of the few cases in which I find the complaint of Disneyfication a valid one. I’m referring, of course, to people who bemoan the fact that Disney changes the source material into something more family friendly and happy-ended when making its movies. Now, most of the times these kind of complaints are directed at fairy-tales and stories that were darker in their original forms, and I tend to think of them as weak arguments, but when the changing subject is history, well, then we’re talking about a more delicate matter. I think the heart of the people making this movie was at the right place, they were trying to make a movie about understanding and tolerance (it is basically a riff on Romeo and Juliet), but their noble approach would prove to be rather problematic.

The weakest part of Pocahontas is its love story, so let’s get that out of the way first. No matter the fact that if the movie was historically accurate, Pocahontas would be only eleven years old when she met John Smith, that it is still debated whether or not she actually saved his life, and that she would later save her own by abandoning her tribe, becoming a christian and marrying tobacco planter John Rolfe. We are used to historical inconsistencies in movies and all being said these inconsistencies are not that big of a deal (although they are a deal). It is also not how ridiculous the scene in which “love breaks the language barrier” is. The thing about the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith is that it works as a series of plot developments, but never as something believable from a character stand-point.

The characters are so noble and just and, frankly, boring that it is hard to believe they could experience a feeling as passionate as love. It is even harder to believe this love story when it is mentioned how John Smith has made a career out of killing “indians” all around the world and how Pocahontas, being a woman that longs for her own agency, would fall for a man who regards her people as savages. Not only is there an Oscar-winning musical number about this, but they are supposed to be in love by the end of it. I guess I can imagine how Smith could fall for her after the, admittedly, very well-sung explanation of her way of life, but why does Pocahontas like him so much beyond the fact that he is nice and good-looking? She complains about her father’s chosen suitor Kokuom being too serious, but I don’t find all that much emotion in John Smith either. 

The other thing about “Colors of the Wind”, and more broadly, the movie as a whole, is that its view of Native Americans ends up feeling rather phony. There is the stereotype (I don’t know if that’s the right word, but I couldn’t find a better one) of the Natives having a more truthful connection to the land, and I am confident most people will agree that they certainly had a more essential and respectful connection to nature than the English settlers, but the most accurate portrayal of these tribes would also not resemble a hippie community. To be fair, the movie does make allusion to the fact that there has been war between tribes, but it also can’t bring itself to present a single Native character that isn’t completely pure of heart. This is a big mistake that gravely hurts the movie’s message.

Nowhere is this more apparent than during the song “Savages”, in which Natives and Englishmen stand in contrast so that we can see how they are intolerant of each other’s views, the only problem being the Natives haven’t done anything actually “wrong”. They were just living harmoniously until the white man entered their lives, and started killing them. There was apparently no way the filmmakers could have presented the Native Americans as villainous, so they went the other route and decided to make the settlers not that bad after all. The only truly bad guy amongst them is Governor Ratcliffe (who is our main villain and a very weak one at that), and the problem here is that the movie ends with the suggestion that from that moment on, thanks to Pocahontas’s sacrifice, the settlers and the natives managed to live together peacefully. I think we all know how that turned out, and yes, that is the movie’s biggest moral crime.

If it sounds like I’m being to harsh on Pocahontas, it’s because I can’t help it. Disney should’ve known what it was getting into when tackling a historical subject, and such a delicate one at that. On the other hand, though, as disappointed and mad as I want to be at the film’s politics, I can’t help but think that it is ultimately a fine movie. Purely as entertainment, I think there is a lot to be enjoyed in Pocahontas, the message of the movie, although a little twisted by its failures, does come through. It is not as much fun as the previous movies in the Renaissance and the villain is one of Disney’s weakest ever, but look, this movie is not worse or less watchable than Avatar, which might earn less scrutiny just because it wasn’t officially about the Native Americans. I admire the effort of the people behind Pocahontas, even if they didn’t quite come through.

Next Week: This was just the beginning of Disney’s ambitions. The relative failure of Pocahontas didn’t stop the studio from adapting The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

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5 comments

  1. The Animation Commendation · December 1, 2013

    The most boring film in the entire Canon (not counting “Fantasia”) in my opinion!

    I don’t even think the animation is all that enjoyable and artistic nor do I find any of the characters or songs likable (with the exception of “Savages”). I’d probably never re-watch this film out of my own choosing.

    • Conrado Falco · December 2, 2013

      Well, surely you must like something about ‘Fantasia’, not even The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?

      • The Animation Commendation · December 2, 2013

        Well, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is the only thing I like about “Fantasia”.

  2. abiboyd16 · December 2, 2013

    I love this! I’m an English student who loves Disney and this is just the sort of thing I like to read! I must admit Pocahontas is one of my favourites along with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. :)

    • Conrado Falco · December 2, 2013

      Thank you! I’ll be talking about those other two very soon, so be sure to stick around.

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