by Mark Greig
Pocahontas marks the beginning of the turbulent second phase of the Disney Renaissance.
The film was released following a major behind the scenes shake-up at Disney. Frank Wells, President of the Walt Disney Company, was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 1994. Without Wells to keep the peace, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg had their infamous falling out that eventually lead to Katzenberg's departure from Disney to co-found Dreamworks. There is no denying that the loss of Katzenberg had an immense effect on the studios' future output. None of the films Disney released for the remainder of the 90s would be able to reach the same level of success as the ones released under his leadership (although they would still do better than the films the studio put out during the 00s).
Pocahontas was the first film released after Katzenberg's departure and the last Disney film he was heavily involved with as the film was in production at Disney for almost five years. Many of the studio's animators chose to work on this film rather than The Lion King as Pocahontas was seen to be a more prestigious project to work on. Katzenberg even believed that it had a chance of earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, just like Beauty and the Beast. And that is the problem I have with the film.
To me, Pocahontas is the Chariots of Fire of Disney films. It's not terrible, but by the gods is it dull. Disney were clearly hoping to make a more adult and mature animated movie, one that featured two things guaranteed to appeal to Oscar voters - serious issues like racism and a famous historical figure. Take away the songs, cute animal sidekicks and a bizarre talking tree that is only there because you need something to go into all those Happy Meal boxes and Pocahontas is no different from all those other boring bio pics you see a lot of around awards season.
It is the first animated Disney film to be based on actual history, although, it should be noted that the history surrounding Pocahontas' encounter with John Smith is so murky it might as well be considered fantasy. Smith wrote two contrasting accounts of the events. The first was published in 1608 and contained no mention of Smith almost being killed by Powhatan, in fact it gave a generally flattering description of Powhatan and his tribe. The second, published in 1622 after Pocahontas had gained prominence in England, is less flattering and describes how Smith was almost killed by Powhatan and saved by Pocahontas. Many have speculated that Smith made up the second account to cash in on Pocahontas' growing popularity.
Since Smith himself didn't see a problem with playing fast and loose with the facts, the filmmakers don't either. There is nothing in any of Smith's account to suggest there was ever any kind of romantic relationship between him and Pocahontas, no doubt because she was only 10 or 11 at the time. So the film ages her up and turns her relationship with Smith into an animated Romeo and Juliet. Why? Because at this point someone decided that every Disney film had to have a love story, regardless of what history might say. Plus, films with tragic love stories also tend to win awards. Just ask James Cameron.
Despite having many of the studio's best animators working on the film, the animation is not amongst Disney's best. There are some standout moments, such as Smith seeing Pocahontas for the first time through the mist, but for the most part I found the animation to be less memorable than Disney's previous efforts, especially when it comes to the film's human characters. At first I couldn't quite place what it was about them that bothered me, then it hit me - they all fall into the uncanny valley. For those of you unfamiliar with the uncanny valley, I'll let the esteemed Frank Rossitano explain it to you in Star Wars. The animators were clearly attempting to make the human characters look more realistic than in previous films, but only succeeded in making them bland and a little creepy.
I might be able to forgive that if the characters themselves were a little more, well, animated. Pocahontas comes across like a mash-up of all the previous heroines from this era. She's free spirited and adventurous, doesn't want to be tied down and marry someone because her father said so, and is curious about new things. What once seemed revolutionary is starting to feel a little formulaic. Smith is possibly the most boring male lead in a Disney film ever. Mel Gibson sounds like he is phoning it in, which is entirely possible since this is an animated movie. Even the film's villain, Ratcliffe, is a bore, although his double-act with Wiggins is one of the film's few sources of fun.
Alan Menken returned to score the film and co-write the songs, the first time he had done so without the involvement of Howard Ashman. Stephen Schwartz was brought in to write lyrics for the songs. Although it isn't on par with Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, Menken's score is still one of my favourite thing about the movie. The songs, however, are a bit hit and miss. 'Mine, Mine, Mine' is not the best villain song and really would've benefited from Gibson's singing being cut out. And 'Colours of the Wind' is a good enough song, but its message of tolerance and respecting nature is delivered with all the subtly of a sledgehammer to the groin.
Wind and Rivers
--Sean Bean was considered for the role of John Smith. Disney later decided they wanted a more famous name. If he had been cast, Smith likely would've died.
--Irene Bedard not only provided the voice of Pocahontas, she was also the physical model for the animated character. She later went on to play Pocahontas's mother in Terrence Malick's live-action version of the story, The New World. Christian Bale (Thomas) also appeared in the film as John Rolfe, Pocahontas' future husband.
--A direct-to-video sequel, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, was released in 1998.
--As well as voicing Ratcliffe, David Ogden Stiers also voiced his manservant, Wiggins. So for much of the film he is literally talking to himself.
--Pocahontas was originally to have a third sidekick, a turkey named Redfeather voiced by John Candy, who supplied much voicework. After Candy died in 1994, the character was cut out of the film.
Wiggins: "Do you think we'll meet some savages?"
Ratcliffe: "If we do, be sure to give them a proper English greeting."
Wiggins: "Oooh, gift baskets."
Kocoum: "Pocahontas can't keep running off. It's dangerous out there. Tell her that. She listens to you."
Nakoma: "Huh. Sure she does."
Ratcliffe: "Wiggins, why do you think those insolent heathens attacked us?"
Wiggins: "Because we invaded their land and cut down their trees and dug up their earth?"
Ratcliffe: "It's the gold! They have it and they don't want us to take it from them. Well, I'll just have to take it by force then, won't I?"
Two out of four Happy Meal boxes.