A few days ago I did an informal poll amongst my friends asking ‘which Disney Renaissance movie is your least favorite?’. While it had a few fans, the overwhelming choices were Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame and I’d probably be right there with them. We will see what I think of Hunchback next but Pocahontas is not a strong film. In fact, if I was going to give an F this might be it. I’ll think about it while I’m writing this review.
It’s kind of a mystery why Pocahontas doesn’t work with all the resources that were thrown into it. As I mentioned in my last review after Aladdin the Disney team split into two projects with some going to Lion King and a larger share going to Pocahontas. Most of the big names like Alan Menken, Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, Glen Keane, Joe Grant and Chris Buck all went with Pocahontas because they thought it was a more promising project.
While nobody is going to a Disney film for a history lesson it is at least worth noting the long list of things they got wrong in their first attempt to tell the story of a real person.
Most of these inaccuracies I don’t care about but the one I find most confusing is why did they age Pocahontas? It’s a Disney movie. Wouldn’t it be better to have it be about a little girl who jumps on the fire and fights for peace over war? That sounds very interesting. Instead they took the Titanic route and made a by the numbers romance inspired by Romeo and Juliet more than what actually happened.
The reason I believe they went the way they did is the project was started in 1990 and what was a big hit in 1990? Dances with Wolves. A film that has not aged particularly well with the stoic natives teaching the white man the true way to live…
But it was a huge hit back then both critically and financially so it makes sense Disney would want to create Dances with Wolves Jr and that Pocahontas being a well known folk-lore it is a natural choice.
The story went through a lot of rewrites, which is why it took so long to make. At one point it was to be a comedy with the animals talking and John Candy playing a turkey. I loved him in Rescuers Down Under so I would have been curious to see what he could have done with it. Unfortunately he died in 1994 so a new direction was taken on the film.
The voice cast is interesting. I like that they got a number of Native American actors to do the tribe-members but I wish they had coaxed better performances out of them. Russell Means is a wonderful Native American actor but his line readings to me felt very stale, like he was reading off of cards not having a real conversations.
I felt the same way about Irene Bedard as Pocahontas but Judy Kuhn is stunning as her singing voice. One of the best in all of Disney. Mel Gibson is fine although why they didn’t have him do a British accent I will never know (we know he can do accents from Braveheart). It makes no sense to have an American with the Jamestown settlers…
I tried to look into why they made the animation choices they did but didn’t find anything good. Everything feels very geometric with hard lines and shapes. This can work in a fantasy world like Alice in Wonderland, but for a movie which is supposed to be a real world setting I found it very distracting.
Even the design of the characters is very geometric. Governor Radcliffe is a giant rectangle:
Pocahontas looks like 2 triangles and her face is very rectangular. I found all the characters to be unpleasant to look at. Some have also said all the indians have too almond shaped eyes and look more like Southeast Asian than Native American. I can see their point. She does have a Laotian, Cambodian, Malaysian look about her more than Native American.
The music was done by Alan Menken and new to Disney lyricist Stephen Schwartz who would go on to write the mammoth hit Wicked. My favorite of the songs is Savages about the prejudices of both the white and Indian groups but the rest are fine but kind of forgettable.
Native Americans, in general, were not happy with the film. Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan tribe wrote a piece called ‘The Pocahontas Myth’ which is worth reading.
“In 1995, Roy Disney decided to release an animated movie about a Powhatan woman known as “Pocahontas”. In answer to a complaint by the Powhatan Nation, he claims the film is “responsible, accurate, and respectful.”
We of the Powhatan Nation disagree. The film distorts history beyond recognition. Our offers to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred.”
If you watch the Behind the Scenes Disney makes it seem like they are doing a noble thing by sharing this great story and culture when in reality those of that culture, for the most part, felt it was a denigration to their history. I understand films need artistic license but when a true good story exists and they choose to veer so far away from it than I have an issue.
At the very least it is disheartening to hear the tribe’s offer to help was rejected.
The movie begins with our introductions of the ship and crew leaving the new world. I like the immersion into the painting and the aerial pan and zoom to the boat.
I wish more was made of the crewmembers families we see in these opening shots. It would have given so much more heart to the scenes that come.
Next we see a storm which evidently reused some of the shipwreck scenes from Little Mermaid but it is very effectively done so I don’t mind. John saves Thomas’ life creating a bond between the two.
We also get our first taste of Radcliffe and our first mention of ‘gold’. I read they were starting with Gaston as their mold for Radcliffe and I wish they had kept on that vein. Gaston works because he isn’t bad at first, just conceited. As his vanity is wounded he grows more and more mad until he is a monster and murderer. Radcliffe starting from the first sentence about savages and gold is like wearing a ‘hey look at me villain hat’.
He literally has a line where he says “This new world is going to be great. I’m going to get a pile of gold. Build a big house and if any Indian tries to stop me I’ll blast him” It took 5 years of rewrites to come up with that bit of subtle writing? Sigh…
Next we get our first introduction to the tribesmen and women. The men have returned from battle and guess who is off scampering around the forest? Why Pocahontas of course. We get a preposterous dive off of a waterfall for no reason but to prove she’s headstrong.
Now I can hear a few of you saying “wait, Rachel. You love Little Mermaid and she’s super headstrong”. Here’s the difference. Ariel is 16, a mermaid and is legitimately not at home in her own body. Pocahontas is a grown woman and she hurts a lot of people in her quest to stay the same as she is at the beginning. Ariel wants change. Pocahontas doesn’t.
Anyway, Powhatan wants her to marry the great warrior Kocoum. Pocahontas doesn’t want to because ‘he’s too serious’. He just got back from war. Shouldn’t we do a little more to establish such a trait before he is discounted as an ineligible mate? He has like 2 lines of dialogue in the whole movie.
So Pocahontas sings about what could be coming for her but again she really doesn’t want change. She wants to remain as free and prancing as she is forever. It’s a pretty song though.
Next the settlers land and I’m not kidding you right off the boat start digging for gold and sing a song called ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’. Again, way to be subtle why don’t you! Why not establish some of the actual reasons for conflict and hunger the settlers faced. Why not make them a tiny bit sympathetic and give the story some wonder and mystery? As it is, it is so predictable.
We also get introduced to Grandmother Willow- a tree that gives Pocahontas advice. It is strange that only this tree talks and yet none of the animals or other trees?
She is supposed to be the conduit for our modern audience like the Genie in Aladdin but it comes off as trite and silly.
The thing that is strange is they have a Shaman in the story who isn’t used. Wouldn’t it be natural for Pocahontas to seek guidance from him? Why not make him the spiritual core of the movie? Strange choice
There is also Pocahontas’ friend Nakoma, who I liked but is underused. She has to make harder choices than Pocahontas and is a more interesting conflicted unpredictable character. I wish the movie was about her.
Next John Smith and Pocahontas meet in a very cheesy scene with Pocahontas appearing out of the mist like a ghost.
For literally 2 lines of dialogue they can’t talk to each other but then that’s done with and she’s busy teaching him why his ways are wrong and loving nature is good…Groan.
There is also a major ridiculous moment where John teaches Pocahontas about gold. These are characters which now speak the same language. Certainly a woman like Pocahontas would be familiar with valuable items used for commerce such as beads, stones, and other forms of currency used by most tribes. It’s just another moment where the whites love gold (gold is the 4 letter word of this movie) and the pure natives don’t need such superficial things….Double groan.
Like I said, subtlety is not this movies strong point.
Our next scene is back at the fort (which appears overnight) and Radcliffe shoots Manatuk causing Powahatan to prepare for war.
There is also a moment where Radcliffe tells Thomas ‘Learn to use a gun properly”. Hmmm wonder if that is going to prove prophetic…
We get a little comic relief here with Meeko the racoon, Percy Radcliffe’s dog and Flit the hummingbird.
John and Pocahontas have one of Disney’s best kisses
Unfortunately both Thomas and Kocoum see their kiss and Thomas shoots Kocoum. This is a pretty good scene with great sound effects. If feels like two people fighting
Then we get the best number in the movie called Savages. Some take offense to it but it isn’t approving of the views of the characters but merely saying that’s what some people think of others. I actually think it is a good thing for children to understand and be watchful for as racism and hatred will always exist.
The geometric graphic style in the picture also works well for Savages. Great scene!
Then we get to the climatic moment we all know is coming but it is gone and over so fast it is a little deflating.
Pocahontas tells the people “this is the path that hatred has brought us”. I don’t think that is true. Thomas didn’t hate anyone. Neither did Kocoum. They were just trying to defend their friends. You could make the argument ignorance or a lack of understanding created this scene but hatred I don’t know if that’s been established except for Radcliffe.
Radcliffe ends up shooting John by mistake and his men turn on him and in the end decide to take John Smith back to England to recover. Pocahontas has the chance to go with him but she chooses to stay where she belongs.
I like that ending. Not the happy ending we might expect.
So clearly this is not my favorite Disney movie; although I don’t think I can give it an F because Savages is a good number and I do love Judy Kuhn’s voice.
It’s just frustrating because they had an opportunity to take actual events and make them into a great movie. Instead we got more of the same in a predictable story told by boxy characters with wooden vocal performances.
Most tribes have pretty thick skin and for the Powhatan chief to say:
“It is unfortunate that this sad story, which Euro-Americans should find embarrassing, Disney makes “entertainment” and perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation”.
Need I say more?
You also have a heroine who is infallible and doesn’t want to grow up or change her behavior unlike Belle and Ariel who will do anything for a change. A lot of people are hurt by Pocahontas’ selfishness but I don’t see real growth or change in her.
Radcliffe and the ‘gold’ is such a lame villain. There’s no nuance or depth to him. Nothing that makes him different or unique. He just wants gold…
Kocoum, Nakoma and Thomas are all more interesting than John Smith or Pocahontas but I barely remembered their names they are so briefly used.
The dialogue is not well written in almost every scene and every action is completely predictable.
The music is fine but the animation is boxy and unappealing. They create characters like Grandmother Willow that doesn’t need to be there when a character like the Shaman already exists within Pocahontas’ culture. Imagine how insulting that must be for a tribesman to see their true spiritual guidance tossed aside for a tree…
I know the movie has fans but I’ve watched it 3 times and don’t get its appeal. To me at best it is bland and at worse it paints caricatures of a whole race of people, which is not okay in my book.
If you like it that is awesome just not my cup of tea, and got to keep it real on this blog or no point in my reviewing them at all.
Overall Grade- D-