Friday, January 4, 2013

Pocahontas (1995) - A Real Disney Movie Princess

Pocahantas, A Disney Movie Controversy But Still Fun

Pocahontas dvd cover Disney movie
"Pocahontas" (1995).
In its 33rd animated feature, Walt Disney Feature Animation finally got around to creating a film that wasn't pure fantasy. Instead, the studio focused on someone who was a real, known historical figure (one could make the argument that Arthur in "Sword in the Stone" and "Robin Hood" were real people, but very little is known about them and there is no direct proof that they were more than popular legends).

English Ship Pocahontas 1995

Pocahontas, though, was very real, and even made a well-documented trip to London, England. That is kind of like one of us going to the Moon, and unfortunately, she perished there as she was preparing to return home. Naturally, this Disney movie "Pocahontas" (1995), directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, takes some liberties with the story, because that is what Disney movies do. However, by and large, "Pocahontas" is based on actual records and accepted folklore (which to some extent is verifiably true) about this true American Princess. Just how true to life this Disney movie does become an issue, but we'll get to that below.

English Ship Pocahontas 1995
The geometry of the animation is impressive.
It is 1607 in the New World, and a group of English settlers has arrived to start life anew there. They are led by Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) and Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson), and the voyage across is rough. During a storm, Smith saves a young man, Thomas (Christian Bale), from drowning. Eventually, they make it across, and Ratcliffe builds a fortress in a clearing.

DVD Pocahontas 1995
Disney DVD artwork is just jaw-dropping.
Meanwhile, nearby is a Native American tribe led by Chief Powhatan (Russell Means). His daughter, Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), is rumored to be wed to Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall), a grim warrior who does not interest Pocahontas. Pocahontas is friends with the animal world, and her close companions are  Flit the hummingbird (Frank Welker) and Meeko the raccoon (John Kassir). Together, they go and see Grandmother Willow (Linda Hunt), a spiritual entity, for advice. Grandmother Willow tells Pocahontas about the Englishmen.

Radcliffe Pocahontas 1995
Yes, every Disney movie needs a villain...
Smith enjoys exploring the countryside, unlike the other settlers, and while doing so he runs into Pocahontas. After spending time together, the two fall in love. Unfortunately, the other natives fight the settlers, and Chief Powhatan forbids his people from associating with the English. Pocahontas disobeys her father and continues seeing Smith, introducing him to Grandmother Willow.

Pocahontas kissing Smith Pocahontas 1995
Pocahontas on top.
Kocoum finds out about Pocahontas' relationship with Smith and attacks him. Thomas, watching nearby, kills Kocoum instead. Chief Powhatan declares war on the settlers and decides that his captive Smith will be executed at sunrise.

Chief Powhatan Pocahontas Pocahontas 1995
Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan.
Thomas, who got away, warns the other settlers. Ratcliffe convinced that the tribe is hiding a fortune in gold, assembles the men to go and wipe it out. Meeko gives Pocahontas a compass which leads her to Smith rather than where she intended, which is fate. Pocahontas manages to deter her father from killing Smith, but Ratcliffe shows up and shoots at the chief, hitting Smith instead. Smith is not killed, but at that point, it is unclear whether he ever will be with Pocahontas, the one that he loves.

Pocahontas and Smith Pocahontas 1995
It's nice to see a little real affection, relatively rare in Disney movies.
The music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz in "Pocahontas" is its main draw. It won two Academy Awards and had a successful soundtrack, winding up triple platinum. "Colors of the Wind" is a fine song indeed, as is "Just Around the Riverbend," and the recording of "Colors of the Wind" by Vanessa Williams went top five in the United States.

Pocahontas 1995

While not a traditional fairy tale princess, Pocahontas has all the trappings of a Snow White from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," as she lives in the forest, is friends with the animal creatures who love and admire her but do not speak (marking this as a "serious" film), and is pursued by a really cute man who would do anything for Pocahontas. The message is the same as in every other Disney movie fairy tale, that love conquers hate and greed, and haters get their just desserts.

Pocahontas canooing Pocahontas 1995
Pocahontas having some fun.
The quality of "Pocahontas" is impeccable. The animation is gorgeous, with lots of pretty blues and browns, earth tones that are tastefully presented in a complex color scheme that has many angular shapes and clear facial expressions. The English ship, in particular, is a thing of beauty. Disney movies were on a roll after "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and The Lion King," and "Pocahontas" flowed seamlessly from those films.

Pocahontas 1995

Mel Gibson was riding high, so having him as the lead actor was as good a selling point as having Robin Williams in "Aladdin." The film made a lot of money upon release, $346 million worldwide, and continued the Disney Renaissance that had begun with "The Little Mermaid." However, executives were not satisfied with the take, having presumed all along that this was a sure-fire hit that was better than "The Lion King."

Pocahontas and Smith Pocahontas 1995
Pocahontas' face is very well drawn.
"Pocahontas" never quite ascended into the true pantheon of Disney movie classics like the aforementioned hits. The reasons are complex and open to debate, and include a rather thin and perfunctory storyline by - I mean, really, Ratcliffe obsessed by gold, you couldn't do better than that? - and a lack of truly engaging characters beyond star-crossed lovers Pocahontas and Smith ("Peter Pan" had Tinker Bell and a corny villain, for instance, and "Pocahontas" has nothing similar).

Pocahontas 1995

Bending over backward to make certain characters appear either too noble or too evil, without faults/redeeming qualities all around and merely acting like robots programmed in a certain way ("good" or "bad") may look good on paper, but plays poorly as drama. This Disney movie falls squarely into that trap, and the pity is that it didn't have to be that way - if Disney had actually embraced their critics during production, it might have been surprised that those critics wanted the characters to be people and not totems. Brushing them off, however kindly or reasonably or whatever else you want to say was a disaster for "Pocahontas."

Pocahontas and Smith Pocahontas 1995
Pocahontas spying on Smith.
The bottom line, though, appears to be that this Disney movie overstepped the company's social bounds. When you take a real-life person's life and adapt it, and then throw in all sorts of lingering tensions over race or identity, you are asking for trouble. Everybody thinks they know the "real" Pocahontas story, and this ain't it. The Disney movie "Pocahontas" just makes a lot of viewers who over-analyze Disney movies uncomfortable. For one thing, they make Pocahontas too cute for words, which isn't realistic, and warp her truly noble act of kindness in saving Smith's life into a "haha, now I have a boyfriend!" moment. It is one thing to make films about non-existent princesses and talking mice and cute kissing dogs, it is quite another to venture into the real world and take historical characters to use as heroines, heroes, and villains. To make the point, imagine a Disney movie about noble slaves or happy-go-lucky concentration camp prisoners or something like that and you can predict with reasonable accuracy the resulting furor.

Pocahontas Disney film
Pocahontas rightfully is an iconic image for many.
Beyond that, Disney movies have a history with Native Americans that is dubious, to say the least. In "Peter Pan," the natives are portrayed in a humorous but ultimately stereotypical fashion, and that is one of the few criticisms that have stuck to that otherwise exceptional Disney movie. Tackling that area again, even with the purest and most honorable of intentions, especially when done without clearing everything completely with the offended parties, was a huge error in judgment. If you are going to venture into the political minefield (not wise for a Disney movie), you have to be prepared to be political. It is not difficult to interpret some small fraction of the angst about "Pocahontas" as really being stored-up resentment about "Peter Pan" and some portrayals of Native Americans in other Disney movies of the past, and a tiny bit of some folks just wanting a piece of the action and to be shown a little personal respect - and heck, so would I. But the reasons don't matter - this was their territory, and Disney was the interloper.

Pocahontas and animal friends Pocahontas 1995
Pocahontas is one with nature.
It is difficult indeed to see how "Pocahontas" could have made its title character more sympathetic, but that is not what the detractors are worried about, apparently. Rather, they claim that the English are portrayed in too favorable a light, despite the fact that the main villain is one of the English (and that villain, incidentally, was completely fictional aside from his name and presence, as Ratcliffe had nothing to do with Pocahontas).

Pocahontas 1995

Like it or not, when you try to tell someone else's story, the people who feel it is theirs are going to want to tell it themselves or at least have it told their way - or not at all. This Disney movie went ahead anyway, without catering to anyone's desire to alter it to fit their agendas, with the predictable results that it was called inaccurate (which absolutely is true for any number of reasons, including the fact that Smith looked like a goat) and offensive (difficult to see that except in an agenda-driven point of view, but everyone is entitled to their opinion).

Pocahontas Disney movie
Pocahontas talks with Grandmother Willow.
Kocoum, from a certain us-or-them perspective, had absolutely the correct attitude about the invaders in a sense - the English were going to take everything once they got established and kill and enslave practically everyone - but that is not something that ever is going to change, no matter how much you find watered-down depictions of those times "offensive." If you want realism, incidentally, Pocahontas almost certainly would have been topless throughout this Disney movie, so if you are are going to hop on that bandwagon, think it all the way through. Finally, if you want to carry a four-hundred-year-old grudge, don't expect the world to hold a four-hundred-year pity party for you.

The ship Pocahontas 1995
The ship with sails set is a stunning sight.
Given all the pressure, Disney pretty much ruined "Pocahontas" by robbing it of any kind of free-spirited fun, such as appeared later in "Hercules" (with some unexpected Greek backlash) and "The Emperor's New Groove" (just pure comic fun that nobody seemed to mind). "Pocahontas" instead became solemn, almost reverent. It is no surprise that subsequent Disney movies were about "safe" subjects like "Hercules" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Atlantis: the Lost Empire" (no pressure groups involved with those topics, whew) and they weren't nearly as good. The Disney Renaissance momentum evaporated like Mel Gibson's career. "Pocahontas" was a game-changer for Disney movies, and not in a good way. The curse of becoming as big and powerful (in a social-message sense) as Disney movies have become over the decades is that everybody starts examining their messages minutely because of their cultural impact.

Pocahontas 1995

You see the same thing happening more recently with Disney movies like "Tangled" and its attempt to attract boy viewers as well as girls. Disney movies are excellent, but once you get into the realm of identity politics, you are asking for trouble, and this Disney movie found trouble, for sure. When you sanctimoniously ban "Pocahontas" from your house, though, bear in mind that kids aren't worried about politics and realism and also have an inquiring mind. Don' be surprised if your child loves the idea of an actual American princess with long, flowing hair and rushes to start researching the names he/she hears in "Pocahontas" on Wikipedia. Kids inherently love the history that speaks to them (as long as it's not in a textbook), and anything that gets them excited about that is good - and "Pocahontas" just might spark that flame.

Smith and Pocahontas Pocahontas 1995
Things turn out well when people love each other.
"Pocahontas" is a fine Disney movie if you just watch "Pocahontas" as a fictional story based on historical truth, technically superb and entertaining. The movie "Pocahontas" is all fairy tales, not reality. Unfortunately, few people want to watch a Disney movie that they know is considered offensive by some others, it destroys the whole fairy tale suspension of belief. If you are sensitive about the portrayal of people of different groups or controversy about such things interferes with your enjoyment of works of art, give "Pocahontas" a pass, otherwise, enjoy.

Pocahontas 1995


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