It’s Thanksgiving 2016, plus with Disney’s “Moana” premiering this month and featuring their first ethnic Princess sense Pocahontas, I felt that the time was right to look back, and do a review of one of my favorite child hood Disney movies. So let’s rewind back to 1995, with the premier of Disney’s 33rd fully animated feature film “Pocahontas”. This is a movie I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time, however, this review will be a little more challenging as the film itself is one of the more “controversial” of their animated line up. Actually, “Pocahontas” is probably Disney’s most controversial movie sense “Song of the South” from back in 1946. So in this review I’ll cover what the film as a whole means for me personally, but I’ll also look at the controversies surrounding the film to see what criticisms are legit and fair against the movie ... which in truth will be most of them, or maybe even all of them.
Set in 1607, this movie tells a mostly fictionalized story of how the Native American Princess came into contact with the English Settlers lead by explorer John Smith and the greedy Governor Ratcliffe. The settlers aim to strip mine the land of its most valuable resources, putting them at odds with the Powhatan tribe who live off the land. Thus, the conflicts between the two cultures ensue, and war is declared. Caught in the middle of the turmoil are the Indian Princess Pocahontas and the English Settler John Smith who have both fallen in love, and aim to use their new found relationship as a stepping-stone to bring peace between their two diverse cultures. In short, this is Disney’s animated equivalent of “Romeo and Juliet” or “West Side Story”, just with a Native American backdrop. I’ll definitely talk about the controversy of this later in my review, but for now I want to talk about the contents of what the film has to offer on its own, as it has a lot of highlights.
First of all, as far as animation is concerned ... the movie is gorgeous. To this day, I think “Pocahontas” is one of the best looking animated movies I’ve ever seen. The warm colors, the lighting, the detailed backdrops, the line work ... it’s just a firkin work of art, and a real feast for the eye. The animators were clearly inspired by early Disney films like “Sleeping Beauty” to utilize a lot of “line work” for the overall design, but the colors are so absorbing that you hardly even notice. Also, even though this isn’t a fantasy, the forest setting still has this really magical atmosphere, and the overall passing of the movie allows me to feel completely submersed in this world. Beyond the arresting visuals, the overall direction and transition of select moments are beautifully shot with an artistic narrative and rhythm. For example, near the end of the film when the two sides march into battle, the backdrop is a rising sun, allowing for the color red to take up most of the imagery, which also emphasizes the heated turmoil between both sides. Then when Pocahontas steps in and mediates peace between the two sides, the sun has fully risen providing cooler and lighter coolers, as the characters have equally reached a calm state. Another individual moment with great direction and build up is when Pocahontas first meets John Smith by the waterfall. This is a long segment with no dialogue at all, yet the scene conveys everything beautifully through the character animation and direction. You could probably watch this film on mute and it would still be a satisfying experience, although, that would deprive you of the films next be highlight.
For all the movies short comings, “Pocahontas” is still undeniably one of Disney’s best musicals, probably among my top three favorites for sure. The other two would have to be “Beauty and the Beast” and “Frozen” respectively. Each song complements the story, and individually their all very memorable. The song “Just around the Riverbend” is still a personal favorite of mine, with its engaging musical rhythm and inspiring theme of daring to explore the unknown. I’ve always liked the opening song “Virginia Company” paired with “Steady as the Beating Drum”, as they introduce us to both cultures in visual detail. Even Alan Menken’s instrumental track is fantastic to listen to, and rightfully won the Academy Award for best original score. The villain song titled “Savages” is one of the greatest to ever come from Disney, or any musical for that matter. It doesn’t revolve around an individual “bad guy”, but a collected hatred among two diverse classes, which makes it very unique. While the lyrics in the song are a little hockey, the track itself is still riveting and the visual style of the song is once again sensational. I suppose Governor Ratcliffe’s actual villain song is also kind of catchy too. Of course the most famous song of all is the Oscar winning “Colors of the Wind”, which despite being a little preachy is still one of Disney’s great classic songs. My personal favorite song is the romantic number between our two heroes titled “If I Never Knew You”. This song was deleted from the original theatrical film version, but it was edited back in for the 10th anniversary DVD. Ignoring the fact that Pocahontas and John Smith were never one of my favorite Disney couples, this song is still a personal favorite. The melody is beautiful, and it’s just a great song revolving around what life would be like without someone you loved.
With that said, let’s talk about Pocahontas’s relationship with John Smith, which unfortunately is not that great. The two have some terrific individual scenes together like their aforementioned song or when the two first meet, but as a whole, they really don’t have much chemistry. Let me put it this way, I at least understand why John Smith would fall in love with her, as she opened his mind and life to new perspectives that in hindsight made him a better man. On the flip side, I never understood why Pocahontas would fall in love with him. She just dose because it’s a Disney movie, and they need to be a couple. To be honest, I thought Pocahontas had a lot more chemistry with this one other Indian girl who’s her best friend, but don’t read too much into that. John Smith is also kind of a typical bland hero, but voiced relatively well by Mel Gibson. In the plus column, I do like the majority of the characters in this film. I like those two silly English guys, Chief Powhatan is a fine father character, and one of the settlers is voiced by a young Christian Bale, which is very amusing.
I also like the mystical Grandmother Willow, who’s a tree that acts as Pocahontas’s spiritual guide. I’ll admit, this character should have only existed in the mind of Pocahontas herself. The concept of a magic tree coming to life on its own is pretty silly, at least when set in a historical time period. Of course I also love the cute animal characters, and I think it was a smart move to keep them mute. Some have argued that do to their lack of speech, the animals don’t contribute anything aside from some visual comedy. Honestly, with the exception of the humming bird Flit, I think the animals do contribute something to the film in their own simplistic way. The raccoon Meeko provides Pocahontas with the compass that becomes her figurative “spinning arrow”, pointing her on the path. The dog Percy was once Governor Ratcliffe’s nasty pet, but makes a full reformation by the end of the film, which is the first sign of making peace between the two groups. Actually, this is something I especially loved as a kid. Usually the evil pet is there to just be an evil pet that gets his comeuppance, but seeing Percy form a friendship with the other animals always felt special to me.
Now let’s finally talk about our leading Princess Pocahontas as she is the key component of the film. Personally, she’s always been one of my favorite Disney characters, and I think one of the best Princesses from their animated roster. Like Belle before her, this is a princess who breaks away from the traditional stereotypes of the past, is stronger, high spirited and has a touching outlook on life that we as a culture can use to make the world a better place. Having said that ... Pocahontas is admittedly not without some set-backs. She lacks the same personality that made other Princesses fun to watch, and I can’t help but feel that there’s more to this character that the movie is glancing over. The film is so focused on her as a romantic interest that we don’t see enough of her diplomatic side, or even her charitable side, which both would have been very meaningful to see more of. On a side note, I know historically her real name is Matoaka, and Pocahontas was just a nickname given to her by her father, which the movie ignores. Now the translation of the name Pocahontas has actually taken on several different meanings, but the most common translation I’ve heard is “Little Mischief”, which I think is kind of cute. I should also note that during this point in Native American history, Pocahontas was closer to the age of 10 or 12, which puts her at odds with John Smith who was closer to 30.
I suppose it’s time to address the elephant in the room, which is the historical and cultural presentation of the film. I mean, I’m no historian or anything, so I won’t pretend to know all the facts, but I can take a wild guess that this film is largely inaccurate to the historical events. Now even before this movie, story tellers have romanticized and embellished the supposed “historical friendship” between the two, to a point where it’s unintentionally become the early American equivalent of “Romeo and Juliet”, and that’s obviously what Disney is trying to capitalize on with this film. Disney’s “Pocahontas” is historical fiction, and this is where I feel the negatives aimed at the movie are justified.
Not every film has to be perfectly accurate to real events, the 1984 picture “Amadeus” for example is a motion picture masterpiece, despite taking some liberties with its historical backdrop. However, there are limits to how many liberties a film can take. I believe it was Napoleon Bonaparte who said “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon”, and in that logic is where I think we might get a little careless. Obviously there will always be historical events that are never proven 100%, but it is our responsibility to get the facts down as accurately and as respectfully possible. If Disney wants to do their own unique spin on a fairytale, that’s perfectly fine, but when it comes to a historical culture, they need to be very ... VERY CARFULL with the presentation. While I’m sure everyone at Disney had perfectly good intentions with this movie, I don’t think anyone stopped to think if what they were doing might come off as offensive to another culture. Case in point, the Indian’s portrayed in this film can create magic visions in fire places, which are these huge, ghostly spectacles. This feels less like the product of a real Native American village, and is obviously more like Disney magic thrown in just because it’s a Disney movie. This just feels like an immature presentation of a real Native Culture, and it puts this movie in a really bad position.
Putting aside the cultural and historical problems, others have criticized this movie for being largely uneventful and mostly boring. Now this is all subject to personal taste, because I remember watching this film a lot as a kid, and enjoying it every bit as much as “Aladdin”, “The Little Mermaid” and so forth. Even to this day, I still enjoy watching the film. I guise because I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and I still think it’s cool to see Disney do their own animated equivalent of “West Side Story” in a different setting. However, I’ll admit, it doesn’t have the same “fun factor” as other Disney movies. The passing is slower, the comedy is subdued, and there isn’t much action. Also, “Pocahontas” came out right in the middle of the Disney Renascence, a time in which the studio was consistently turning out some of their biggest and best work. I think the big problem was that this film came off the heels of “The Lion King”, which was a monumental juggernaut in children’s entertainment, and it made “Pocahontas” look pathetic by comparison. However, I do think this movie was a mostly admirable effort to speak to both kids and adults equally. The execution wasn’t as strong as it could have been, but their hearts were in the right place. The various morals in the movie are still relevant to this day, and even if it’s a recycled message I still can’t fault the movie for conveying genuinely good values to the viewer.
Another thing that unfortunately contributes to the films lack of fun is the villain Governor Ratcliffe. He’s obviously designed and marketed like any classic Disney villain, but without either the excitement or even the charm of other bad guys. I can’t say that he’s completely forgettable, but his motivations are as generic as they get, and there’s a noticeable lack of conflict between him and our lead hero. Yeah, something I never noticed as a kid is that Pocahontas and Governor Ratcliffe never share a single scene together, and it’s always a highlight of any Disney movie to see the hero work off the villain. In my opinion, there’s one thing that could have completely redeemed this character and made him one of the greatest villains in the whole Disney roaster. He and John Smith should have been best friends at the beginning of the film, and both with the same nefarious goals. That way John Smiths reformation and union with Pocahontas would have been all the more powerful, and his rivalry with Ratcliffe would have been far more conflicting. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, leaving Governor Ratcliffe at the short end with Disney’s roster of classic villains.
Now before I wrap up this overly long review of mine, I have to talk about the ending, because personally I think this one of the greatest endings of any Disney film. There’s no big climax, no over blown action spectacle, and it doesn’t resolve in a traditional happy ending. Most Disney movies end with our main couple together, but this is more like the “Casablanca” of Disney films in which the couple is forced to go separate ways. There's still the lingering hope that one day they’ll meet again, but even if they don’t, we still have the satisfaction that both their lives are now more complete thanks to the experience they shared together. So it’s a fine mix of beauty and sorrow, plus the whole ending scene is just gorgeously shot, and it leaves me with chills every time I see it. Also in comparison to both “West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet”, I felt that this relationship was more beneficial to both warring parties, where as in the former two stories, I felt that the couple accomplished nothing in terms of bringing the divided groups together. P.S. – “I love “West Side Story”, and it is obviously the superior musical by comparison”.
So with all that said, is Disney’s “Pocahontas” a good movie ... probably not. Both the cultural and historical flaws are very serious negatives, the story is based on familiarities that can make the experience boring for some viewers, the romance at the center point of the film feels generic, the villain is average, and even the message is a little too familiar for the movie to really leave an impact. Now having said all that, I still can’t bring myself to say that I don’t like this movie. Despite its many flaws, Disney’s “Pocahontas” is still personally one of my top 10 favorite animated films the studio has produced. I still love the characters, I love the animation, I love the music, I love the atmosphere, I love the setting, on general principle I love the morals, and the film to this day still gets me in the warm “feels” every time I watch it. While I regrettably can’t recommend “Pocahontas” as easily as other animated films, I’m still glad I grew up with it, and I’m glad it’s held up for me after all these years. Now out of respect, I’m going to do my best to learn my history and not rely on what a film says ... as we all should. Also, sense I can't properly recommend “Pocahontas”, I can absolutely recommend Disney's "Moana". Yeah, that movie I briefly mentioned in the into, I'm bringing it back in the outro, Why, because if you are going to watch a Disney movie this Thanksgiving that revolves around an ethnic Disney Princess, "Moana" is the one I'd recommend first. As for “Pocahontas”, I know objectively, this film shouldn’t get more then 2 ½ stars out of 5, but I usually rate films based on what they do for me personally, so with that said ...
I give Disney’s “Pocahontas” 4 stars out of 5.
And Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!