Disney’s POCAHONTAS is the big animated feature of the summer of 1995, a part of the “Disney Renaissance” and feature animation resurgence that started in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But if the popularity of Disney animation was a motherfucker trying to ice skate uphill, this would be the point when he had just reached the top and now was beginning to slide back down in reverse. It came out a year almost to the day after THE LION KING, the tale of fathers and sons and a bunch of unrelated songs about a farting warthog and a smartass weasel guy or whatever, which smashed all box office records for animated features and remained the highest grossing of all time until TOY STORY 3 beat it 16 years later. More importantly, POCAHONTAS came about 5 months before the first TOY STORY arrived like a European with an infected blanket, triggering the end of the popularity of line drawings on the big screen.
Though not very highly regarded, and controversial for its fictionalization of history, I think POCAHONTAS is a respectable swan song for the age of Disney hand drawn animation. It goes whole hog with the house formula of glamorous heroines in a Broadway-inspired musical format, but takes some risks and, most notably, gloriously showcases the artistry of the studio’s best animators, designers and colorists.
The story is loosely based on the historic encounter between English settlers and the Powhatan Indians in 1607, and the most-likely-made-up legend of the Chief’s daughter saving Captain John Smith from execution. In Disney’s version Pocahontas is not a child but a young woman (voice of Irene Bedard, THE TREE OF LIFE), known for her free spirit and extreme cliff-diving. She looks totally different from the other Disney Princesses, your Belles and your Ariels, though she is lanky and gorgeous and has long hair that dances spectacularly on every gust of wind.
As the formula dictates, her father Chief Powhatan is very caring but doesn’t understand her, and tries to arrange her a marriage with the warrior Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall). You know how these fuckin dads are.
But then the whites show up and she sneaks around spying on the dreamy blond, John Smith (voice of Mel Gibson, PAPARAZZI). The scene where Pocahontas and Smith first encounter each other by a waterfall is an animation storytelling masterwork, from the atmospheric mist and hair-blowing wind, to Pocahontas’s odd, agile movements, to the subtle facial expressions as they silently stare each other down, to the magical-realist way they acknowledge and then erase the language barrier. The lead animator for Pocahontas herself was Glen Keane, son of the dude who drew that weird comic strip The Family Circus, and possibly Disney’s best animator throughout that period. (He also drew The Little Mermaid and Tarzan.)
This is a straight-faced melodrama with no farting, and only songs that are very emotional and important to the plot or the characterization. Other than the pear-shaped villain Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers, THX 1138) and his Ichabod-esque assistant, the people are generally less caricatured than your average Disney characters. The Powhatans especially are drawn in a fairly realistic style, as are most of the settlers (including cabin boy Thomas, voiced by Christian Bale).
The stock comic relief does come from your usual cute Disney animals (a raccoon and hummingbird that follow Pocahontas around, and the Governor’s pampered pug dog), but none of them talk. In my opinion the pantomime makes for a classier level of wacky comic hijinks. In some of the ’90s Disney movies the comedy bits are something you just have to tolerate in order to get anything out of the movie, but here they’re fine. I think the only bad joke is a pun made by a talking tree (long story), but it’s immediately derided by two eye-rolling owls in a judgmental reaction shot.
Though totally fictional, and offensive according to some people, the Disney people chose to turn this into a forbidden love story, with Pocahontas and Smith getting to know each other and then trying to form a bridge between the settlers (who are led by a jerk looking for gold, and who see the natives as savages and have plenty of experience killing them) and the locals (who correctly see the settlers as a threat and believe they need to be fought off).
Some descendants of the Powhatan have publicly objected to Disney turning a self-serving and most likely fabricated story by John Smith (who was apparently not the hero or charmer of the movie) into an even more souped-up fable for children. Fair enough. But regardless of matters of taste, the symbolic substance is hard to disagree with: people of two different cultures meeting, learning from each other, putting themselves on the line to end a conflict.
Interestingly, the movie’s greedy settler villain (who is visually paralleled with a rat as he enters the movie) probly gets more of a historical accuracy raw deal than the idealized Powhatan tribe. The character may be based on other governors, but the actual man named John Ratcliffe was considered by the real Smith to be too generous in trading with the Natives. Worse, he went to trade with them but it was a trap, and supposedly they tied him naked to a tree, scraped off his skin with mussel shells and burned him alive. I imagine that account may have been exaggerated, but if there’s any truth to it you gotta feel kinda bad for the guy now being turned into a fat, greedy asshole in a cartoon. “I’m the bad guy?”
One criticism I’ve heard of the POCAHONTAS story is “But they gave it a happy ending. In reality the Europeans committed genocide!” First of all, if your kids never learn that context I’m afraid that’s a failure of parents and teachers, not animators. I don’t really think they should end with text about that just because you don’t know how to break it to your kids. Second, let’s not underestimate the progressiveness of a G-rated cartoon musical that does acknowledge racism and genocide. It opens with the white hero misguidedly singing about “killing me some Injuns.” The song “Savages” makes no bones about the English settlers being racists who call Pocahontas and her people “dirty redskin devils” and the like to incite a war. Compare that to the Natives in PETER PAN, who sing in broken English about “what made the red man red.” It’s a whole bunch of steps in the right direction.
No, children won’t understand the cinematic technique of the movie beginning and ending as framed illustrations to indicate that it’s a story, a legend. But they also, I am convinced, do not believe in their minds that this animation represents real life, real history. There’s always a danger with “based on a true story” movies misleading the public about which parts really happened, but I think this factor is negligible when you’re talking about a cartoon, even if it didn’t have funny animal characters (I looked on Wikipedia to see how close they stayed to the facts on the real, historical Meeko the Raccoon, but I couldn’t find anything). Or even a musical in general. Even in a subconscious sense, I have a hard time believing that we internalize Disney cartoons and confuse them with our knowledge of actual history. I don’t think that’s a problem.
One thing they will take away though is a “Disney Princess” of color, with distinctly non-European features, who resists arranged marriage just as well as Jasmine or any of ’em, but is more independent and much more physically capable, and whose legend is based not only on promoting racial and cultural harmony, but on an act of passive resistance to stop a war! The heroes stop the villain not by throwing him off a cliff, but by wrestling his gun away from him and taking him away (admittedly in chains).
And as actor and activist Russell Means, who voiced Chief Powhatan, put it: “POCAHONTAS is the first time Eurocentric male society has admitted its historical deceit. It makes the stunning admission that the British came over here to kill Indians and rape and pillage the land. LION KING was this generation’s BAMBI, demonstrating that animals have feelings and causing children to question the morality of sport hunting. POCAHONTAS teaches that pigmentation and bone structure have no place in human relations. It’s the finest feature film on American Indians Hollywood has turned out.”
Means calls the movie’s detractors “scholastic, linear-thinking nit-pickers,” which is a phrase I should probly keep handy.
I think it’s interesting to compare POCAHONTAS to Disney’s 1998 movie, MULAN, which depicts a Chinese historical period without having become a target of the scholastic, linear-thinking nit-pickers. It has no “Controversy” section on its Wikipedia page. I guess that’s because it’s based on a legend, not a real person? But unlike POCAHONTAS it does have some white people (June Foray, Harvey Fierstein) playing non-white characters, so you’d think people would be touchy about it. Nope. It got much better reviews than POCAHONTAS too (Rotten Tomatoes 86%, Metacritic 71, vs. 56%/58). To me, though, MULAN’s story, songs and especially visuals are dull and lifeless compared to POCAHONTAS, to the point where the clear highlight of the movie is the fuckin comic relief sidekick dragon played by Eddie Murphy.
I’ve tried to watch MULAN twice, and it sounds like it would be a cool story (woman secretly pretends to be man to go to war – cool, Chinese war with swords, too!), but both times it was a snooze. POCAHONTAS (which is about the opposite, a woman openly standing up to stop a war), on the other hand, grabs me immediately with its smart, economical storytelling. I especially like the clever scene transitions (which I want to call “editing” but I’m sure they were planned exactly like this), for example the opening number is a rowdy sailor song about adventuring and killing Indians. Smith looks out off the bow of the ship as he talks about all the “new worlds” he’s visited, and asks “What could possibly be different about this one?”
Then the credits answer his question: “WALT DISNEY PICTURES PRESENTS… POCAHONTAS.”
Later the workers grouse about the governor living it up in his fancy tent. It cuts from Billy Connolly (THE BOONDOCK SAINTS) saying “while Ratcliffe sits up in his tent all day, happy as a clam” to Ratcliffe inside freaking out, saying “I’m doomed!”
And another one is when the tribe meets about the threat of the settlers. “These white men are dangerous,” the Chief says. “No one is to go near them.” Cut to his own daughter Pocahontas’s face goofily reflected in Smith’s helmet, like a funhouse mirror. And then they’re sitting around together looking like it’s a first date.
But even if you can’t get into that, it must be acknowledged that this is a great looking movie. Everybody loves real paint, but the advent of computerized coloring in these cartoons seems to have really pushed the artform forward, helping them to create subtle lighting effects, a really sophisticated way of adding realism. But I love that this one also gets really bold with the colors…
…especially during the scene leading up to the climax as the two sides beat the drums of war. A bonfire is used as an excuse to get feverish and experimental with those hues.
This is also when the movie rips open its chest and exposes its beating heart. It fully commits to the melodrama and uses dissolves to create its most operatic moment as the scene of Smith about to have his head smacked open is under a shot of desperate Pocahontas racing to the scene to help. And here’s a shot that looks straight out of a Julie Taymor stage show:
In fact it gets weird enough that each side of the conflict creates an abstract cloud of smoke with all their saber rattling, and the two clouds collide and create thunder and lightning as a preview of what’s gonna happen when the two sides clash.
I should mention that this a real deal musical, with elaborate numbers where crowds of dudes are marching around geometrically, moving their shovels in unison and shit like that. And I don’t want to spoil the ending but the ending is the boat is leaving and she runs and runs and she gets to the edge of a cliff where she watches the boat float away and she stands there looking awesome and as the music swells and brings back themes from earlier songs a gust of wind blows a stream of colorful leaves around her and out to the dude in the boat and there is symbolism and what not but even if there wasn’t this would be a cool and really dramatic way to end it.
Keep in mind I also thought THE MISERABLES was really moving. Sorry everybody. I am not a musical guy, except when I am.
I like watching this in context with the other Summer of 1995 movies. Remember in BRAVEHEART Gibson is gonna be publicly executed and it keeps making you think maybe somebody can stop it? Here he actually does get saved, it’s the whole point of the story! This should’ve come out before BRAVEHEART just to fuck with us, get us used to Mel Gibson getting rescued at the last second.
It’s funny to think that Gibson played this character and William Wallace (and the guy in the mirror in CASPER) so close together. They’re similar in that they’re the best fighters and most charismatic leaders of their people, and they take a moral stand that disagrees with their sleazy government. But of course Smith is part of the invading party in this one, not the locals under occupation. And he chooses against fighting instead of for it.
Also he sings in this one. So it’s different.
But in both movies he fucks the other side’s princess. Or at least he kisses her passionately, which is Rated-G for “he fucked her.”
Another connection to another Summer of 1995 movie is that they coincidentally have almost the same shot as BATMAN FOREVER:
Watching this on blu-ray really convinced me that it doesn’t get enough credit for how good it looks. The backgrounds are done kind of stylized like SLEEPING BEAUTY. If you think about this movie you probly think of a closeup of Pocahontas and her raccoon pal and maybe rowing in a canoe or something. But the true beauty of the movie is in the wide shots. Tell me these things don’t look stunning:
These are all actual screencaps I made, but most of them look like the pages out of an “art of” book where you wonder why the movie can’t look as good as the concept art. Give mid-90s Disney some respect here. Those bastards could really paint up something pretty back then. If you ever wondered why the grinning bobcat grins, that’s why.
Perhaps this film’s most important contribution to our culture is in providing a song that served me very well in karaoke a couple times. The heart-on-its-sleeve corniness of “Colors of the Wind” made for the perfect counterpoint to a bunch of dudes trying to rock out to cool tunes by bands that I recognize the name of but were after my time and I wouldn’t have been into them anyway. They’re trying to recapture their youth and then I come up with an impassioned plea talking about “I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name” and “the rainstorm and the river are my brothers” and all kinds of awesome nature shit like that. Nobody knows what to make of it.
Unfortunately another time I did it I learned that alot of girls grew up watching this movie over and over again on clamshell VHS, so when I accidentally sang it in front of that age group they all swooned and sang along and said “I love this song!” It threw me off.
Despite that, POCAHONTAS won 2 Oscars, for best original song (“Colors of the Wind”) and best musical or comedy score. There was a DTV sequel. Christian Bale went on to become AMERICAN PSYCHO and Batman. Gibson did animation voices for an episode of The Simpsons and for CHICKEN RUN before not really being considered family friendly anymore.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.