Pocahontas (1995)

Directed by: Mike Gabriel/Eric Goldberg

Written by: Carl Binder/Susannah Grant/Philip LaZebnik/Glen Keane/Joe Grant/Ralph Zondag/Burny Mattinson/Ed Gombert/Kaan Kalyon/Francis Glebas/Robert Gibbs/Bruce Morris/Todd Kurosawa/Duncan Marjoribanks/Chris Buck

Based on: Real people. Sort of. Almost. Kind of.

Here’s where things start to falter a bit in the Renaissance. Pocahontas is not what you call a…great…film. It’s beautiful to look at! But there’s just not much here, other than that.

They started work on this one before The Lion King and, in fact, really thought that it was going to be the bigger and more prestigious film. All of the animators wanted to work on it and were far less enthusiastic about The Lion King.

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were brought on board very early in the process. Sadly, Ashman died before any work could be done on it. Tim Rice was tapped, but he was busy, so Stephen Schwartz (who had actually retired from Broadway and was taking psych classes) was brought in. Unfortunately, not a single one of their songs is particularly memorable, here. Not even Color Of The Wind. It’s pretty much Disney’s version of a John Denver song, but not as catchy.

The studio initially wanted to make the film basically historically accurate. Of course, they couldn’t have a romance between a grown man and an 11 year old girl, so they made her a young woman. They also couldn’t have her be a divorcee, so they jettisoned John Rolfe.

They pretty much ignored the entire actual story and wrote their own romantic version of it.

In Disney’s version of the story, Pocahantas (Irene Bedard) is an independant daughter Chief Powhatan (Russell Means). She follows the wind, but her father wants her to marry Kokoum (James Apaumut Fall), a very serious warrior in the tribe.

On the other side of the world, John Smith (Mel Gibson) is heading to the New World. His leader, Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) is a greedy, exploitive, racist asshole. He’s in this trip for the gold and, apparently, the chance to kill some “savages.”

When Smith and his crew make it to the New World, two worlds collide. And there will be blood.

But first, there will be LOOOOOOOOOOOVE.

Smith and Pocahantas meet cute by the river and, because the listen to the color of the wind, they can suddenly understand each other. She takes him all over her world and shows him how amazing nature is.

Meanwhile, white men and Natives clash in the settlement that Ratcliffe is building. One of the Natives is shot and things just go downhill from there. When Smith and Pocahantas finally decide that they need to try to bring the tribe and the settlers together, they kiss and Kokoum attacks him. They fight and John’s friend, Thomas (Christian Bale who would later play John Rolfe in The New World), kills Kokoum. Thomas runs and John is captured for the murder.

Of course, we all know that things will turn out alright. Partly because this is Disney and partly because they swing over to the myth of Pocahantas.

As I said before, the movie is beautiful, animation-wise. The animators were inspired by Sleeping Beauty, among other things.

There’s also the animal characters: Meeko (raccoon), Flit (hummingbird), and Percy (Ratcliffe’s pug). They are absolutely the best part of this movie. Meeko is pure Bugs Bunny. He even gets a very Bugs-like expression at one point. He steals the entire movie like the little bandit he is.

Of course, he has some competition from a pair of owls who prove that EVERYONE is, indeed, a critic.

The main problem is that none of the human characters are particularly good. Sure, Pocahantas is a strong young woman, but there wasn’t much there beyond that. (It’s sad that Disney’s first heroine of color is so unmemorable.) And John Smith is a benevolent young man who starts off kinda racist and then learns that the Natives aren’t “savages” at all. But the only thing that transforms him, really, is the promise of a young lady. Ratcliffe is an asshole, but he’s not a very threatening asshole. He’s just a blowhard.

The best thing about the Wiki page is reading how people can’t agree on how problematic the movie is. Disney talked to two decendants of Pocahantas to try to get things right…and then they went off on their own tangent. The two women were acutally kind of ashamed to have any involvement after they found out that the true story was just kinda thrown out the window.

Some anthropologists just saw the characters of Meeko, Flit and Grandmother Willow (Linda Hunt) as being demeaning to Native Americans. I’m not sure how animal characters who are pretty devoid of any race at all are demeaning to anyone…but ok. Grandmother Willow, though, I can kinda see. Pocahantas basically gets all of her advice from a tree. Probably not the best way to go.

But others, including Russell Means (who is not only voice actor, but an activist), saw it as real progress. He said that it was the first time that a Eurocentric feature had admitted to the greed and averace that brought the English over the ocean and that it was the first female Native American character (besides Northern Exposure) that actually had a real character.

So, depending on who you believe, the film is either super racist or incredibly progressive.

I’m giving this one a mid-level grade. It’s pretty and the animal friends are very funny, making the movie worth watching, but the humans and the songs are pretty uninteresting.