With today’s movie, we’ve reached the half-way point of the Disney Renaissance. After this there are four more movies, ending with 1999’s Tarzan. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about 1995’s Pocahontas.
Pocahontas shares an interesting development history with The Lion King. Both of them were ramping up production at around the same time. A lot of Disney’s more experienced animators decided to work on Pocahontas, thinking it had the better chance of repeating Beauty and the Beast’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture. They thought Pocahontas would perform better at the box office than a silly little retelling of Hamlet featuring lions. They specifically timed its initial release to the real Pocahontas’s estimated 400th birthday on June 16, before its wider release on June 24th.
Although this movie succeeded in theaters, earning $346 million on a $55 million budget, it fell well short of The Lion King’s $763 million in its initial theatrical run. Critical reception was much more mixed than previous Disney Renaissance movies, with an average critic score of 6/10. It was praised for its animation and music, even earning yet another Best Original Song/Best Original Score combo at the Academy Awards for Disney Animation Studios. On the downside, critics weren’t as fond of its historical inaccuracies. Chief Roy Crazy Horse (yes that is his actual name, as awesome as it sounds) blasted the film, claiming it distorts history beyond recognition for a dishonest, self-serving myth. He also complained that Disney didn’t ask the tribe for advice on how to make their movie accurate. Considering he was the chief of the Powhatan tribe at the time, the tribe that Pocahontas came from, his reaction cannot be ignored.
The mixed reception and its lower box office success than hoped for is what many now refer to as the beginning of the downfall of the Disney Renaissance. None of the remaining movies in the 90’s would come anywhere close to The Lion King’s level of success, and with the exception of Tarzan, none would earn more than $350 million in theaters, nor would they win any academy awards (Tarzan won Best Original Song).
Pocahontas is actually the first Disney movie I ever saw in theaters, and it remains the only animated Disney movie I’ve ever seen in theaters besides Frozen. I’m not counting Pixar in this. I remember liking it as a kid, but not quite enough to try to get my parents to buy it on VHS. I saw it a couple more times at my babysitter’s house, as well as its straight to video sequel, but that’s about it. Today is the first time I’ve watched it since then.
I won’t go to deep into the politics behind why this movie’s reception is mixed. I don’t know all that much about how Native Americans are treated in the United States, and I don’t want to get overly political on this blog anyway. But I will be touching on some of this movie’s historical inaccuracies. So with that long introduction out of the way, let’s talk about Disney’s animated version of the Pocahontas story.
In the movie, Pocahontas is the young adult daughter of a Native American chief. She’s very in touch with nature and quite the free spirit. She’s portrayed as wise beyond her years and she loves adventure. John Smith, a legendary soldier from England, is going along with a voyage to “the new world”. His ship captain wants gold, and he expects to find it in what is now the state of Virginia. Despite his reputation for killing “savages”, he and Pocahontas meet not long after his ship arrives in Virginia, and they soon fall in love, despite their leaders’ disapproval.
The British and the Natives really don’t get along as a whole. There are a couple scenes where they fire a few quick shots, which soon builds into a potential war situation. Pocahontas and John end up risking their lives to stop the war from happening, but in the end they are separated, perhaps forever. I’ll give Disney credit for not giving this movie a happy ending.
In a lot of ways the movie is a mix of actual historic events and Romeo and Juliet. I can see what Disney was going for here, and so can anyone else who watches this movie. They’re going for a movie that teaches its viewers about tolerance. If this movie wasn’t based on real people or real events, it could have been great. The fact that it’s based on real events and badly misrepresents them is the problem.
The real life Pocahontas was around 10-years-old when John Rolfe, a tobacco planter, first met her. She was 12 when the British captured her from her tribe and held her for ransom when hostilities between the British and the Natives intensified. She was eventually married off to John and sent to England at a young age, where she bore a child, Thomas Rolfe. As far as I can tell, Pocahontas did have a choice in her marriage, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was captured. She was presented to the English in hopes to promote more financial support for Jonestown, Virginia, and was hailed as a celebrity of sorts. She died at about 21 of unknown causes, having never returned to her tribe or ever seen her family again. She was buried in a church in Gravesend, UK, but the exact location of her grave is unknown.
Sounds a lot darker and more sinister than the Disney version, doesn’t it?
It’s one thing to adapt a dark story like the more disturbing Grimm fairy tales and make it child friendly. That’s fine. You don’t even need to keep all the same themes when you’re adapting a story that itself is based on folklore. Taking a real historic event and whitewashing it is entirely different. This is not a historic event that should have been adapted into a kid’s movie.
I have other problems with Disney’s Pocahontas besides its whitewashing. The animation, while very technically impressive for its time, is kind of boring. A lot of the facial expressions just amount to Pocahontas and John staring at each other. There’s no real subtlety to their eyebrow movements. On the bright side, the use of colours throughout the movie is brilliant, and the more realistic looking humans compared to older Disney movies does fit the movie’s tone.
The characters are all kind of boring as well. Pocahontas is a free spirit who likes to travel around the country on her own, but that’s just what she does. She never makes any funny jokes, she never really gets angry – she’s just there to be wise and show John what it’s like to be in touch with nature. She doesn’t have much of a personality. John is even more boring. Mel Gibson, who voices John, sounds like he’s phoning his entire performance in. He never puts any energy or passion into his lines. The chief just kind of exists. The villain is just some greedy snob from England who wants gold and thinks the Natives are good for nothing but target practice. John’s the only character with any real arc, and he’s so boring that it doesn’t matter. By extension, the story is predictable. You know where it’s going before Pocahontas and John ever meet.
The movie is also inconsistent with its environment. Unlike a lot of Disney movies in the 90’s, the animals don’t really talk. Save for a few moments, they’re no more or less intelligent than normal animals. The movie generally goes for a more realistic feel. But then all the sudden there’s a talking tree that Pocahontas refers to as “Grandmother Willow.” The willow tree even controls its roots to trip a couple of English soldiers, and then whips them in the butt with her vines. There’s also this theme in the movie about communicating with nature. Pocahontas is somehow able to tap into this, listen to the wind, and she can suddenly understand every word John Smith says. So if anything, this is the one Disney movies where you should hear animals talk. Either go fully realistic or all-out fantasy. This movie makes no sense.
Toward the end of the movie, John Smith is shot by the villain, who was aiming for Pocahontas’s chief father. This is what causes Pocahontas and John to get separated. The idea is that Pocahontas feels her father needs her with the tribe, yet if John doesn’t get to England, his wound will kill him. Uh … I’m pretty sure that if his wound is that bad, he’ll die long before they reach England. Staying on a rocking boat probably won’t help him recover either.
If there’s one thing that is good about this movie, it’s the music. The Oscar winning song, “Colours of the Wind”, is a great balled that talks about being in touch with nature. It’s preachy at times, but not obnoxiously so. The soundtrack uses the “Colours of the Wind” tune as its musical core, and it’s a good mix of dramatic and epic to give the movie its atmosphere. The other songs also sound good, even if the lyrics often get either a bit goofy or way too blatant. There’s one particular line in “Savages” that says “They’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil.” Yeah … this movie is terrible at subtlety.
While I kind of liked it as a kid, I never thought it was anything special. When I saw the first Toy Story later that year, I completely forgot about Pocahontas for a while. There’s a reason I never watched it as an adult until now. Pocahontas is just boring. It’s easy to see what they were going for, but there are better movies about tolerance out there. Everything about the movie’s level of quality is mixed. Throw in the historical inaccuracies that are understandably offensive to some people and you’ve got a movie that’s not worth tracking down. I won’t say Pocahontas is terrible, but it likely isn’t worth your time. After all, Disney never fully recovered from Pocahontas’s backlash for the remainder of the Renaissance.
Next up is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After that, it’s the only Disney Renaissance movie I haven’t seen before, Hercules, and then Mulan, which I’ve only ever seen once. I’ve wanted to see Mulan again for a while though, and Hunchback has quite possibly the greatest villain song of all time in any medium.