Pocahontas - Disney Films Project

Pocahontas - Disney Films Project

I know this film bothers a lot of people because of cultural and historical issues. I’m not going to tackle those here, but I can understand why they are problematic. I enjoyed the overall message of the film of the understanding of peace and acceptance of others - no matter how different they are from us.

 Artwork from The Little Big Book of Disney (out of print)

Artwork from The Little Big Book of Disney (out of print)

This film is a bit of a mixed bag for me. Governor Radcliffe is just a yucky villain. I know that you aren’t supposed to like villains, but I do think you should want to watch them. That is not the case here. He’s just too unlikeable and the scenes with him in them drag on. John Smith is just an OK character. I never really connected with him. I really do like Pocahontas and I found her interesting and so beautiful that it was distracting. I have watched special feature clips and the real life model they used for her animation inspiration really looked like that. She’s definitely not portrayed as the young girl she really was in actuality, but I said I wouldn’t bring historical issues into this. The animal sidekicks are cute, but it does feel like they are just there for the purpose of having toys to market with the film. Not that I’m saying that’s a terrible thing, but it is nice when they are a little more developed.

There are a few things I really like about the film. I do think it’s important that Disney included a Native American story in their canon and I like seeing the culture represented in a respectful way. I love the music and the songs Just Around the River Bend and Colors of the Wind are top notch and some of my favorites. I had forgotten just how beautiful the animation is for this film until I watched it again this time on our big screen. The scenes with water in them are really incredible.

Overall, it’s just too hard to care about most of the English settlers and I feel like the entire movie rests on how we feel about Pocahontas. I liked her so that’s ok, but it’s not enough for me to give it glowing reviews. I give this 6 out of 10 Mickey ears.

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Second Opinion with Alex Nelson

Let’s start with the obvious, shall we? This is a film Disney made because they wanted to do right by the Native American demographic. And they had no shortage of stories that would depict this, yet they decided on the one that likely never happened. As romantic as the idea of this girl protecting a stranger is, it’s likely that John got in a ceremony and misconstrued what was happening. So history is out.

Also of note? We get 8 minutes into the movie, and we have 5 extra sidekick characters, three for the Native Americans (Meeko, Flit and Grandma Willow), and two for the English (Percy and Wiggins). This kind of sucks the gravitas out of the situation. We’ll see this in Hunchback later on.

So why bother with the film at all? I think I can give a few reasons….

The Art is fantastic: Looking at the backgrounds, the scene setting, and even little details, you can tell that the A team was on production. It’s so good that I’m inclined to believe that this idea may have been mimicked by another studio.

Believable Characters: I know that there’s some parts that are a bit bothersome by today’s standards, but everyone in the film seems moderately fleshed out, to the point where it’s believable. From Powhatan, to the tribal warrior Kocuum, and her friend Nakoum, and even on the English side with John Smith, the supporting members of the Virginia Company, and the kid who’s a bit of a slower shot.

Radcliffe in particular stands out as an understandable depiction of the heartless upper class who wanted nothing but power in the New World…. Which is likely a caricature of all the wrongs the English have done, so it kind of seems like reverse discrimination? Other villains do the greed motif better, so I can see why people dismiss him.

Leads are human: It would be so easy to swing one way or another on this, make one side TOO perfect. But Pocahontas has wanderlust, and John Smith’s got a bit of a storytelling streak. In addition, the two don’t quite hit it off. There’s a scene where John accidentally insults Pocahontas, and follows her to try to make up for it. (Mind, this sparks three words in most women today, which are “I have Mace”, so don’t try this? Thanks!) A lesser movie would have glossed over these things, but this actually adds depth to the characters.

M for music: If there are two songs you’ve heard from this film, it’s “Just around the Riverbend” and “Colors of the wind”. But even throwaway numbers like “The Virginia Company” have a solid sound to them. Even when the topic gets way too moralized!

“Savages” is one of the underrated songs from this film, due to how it perfectly conveys the brink of battle between the two forces. I may hate the lyrics, but that delivery and sound is solid!

Bittersweet: Everyone knows this friendship can’t last, but the way it gets pulled off makes you both not want things to end this way AND convey why this is how it has to be. It honestly feels like a better-constructed message is waiting behind the curtain we pull out of as the ending hits. Shame we never get to see it.

This movie is great, but also a bit problematic. Had it been left to its own devices, we may have had something. Quite simply, this is just a film with too many concepts to pull them all off. A better version of this film will happen later.

So what went wrong? I think part of it is that after the last movie, Frank Wells died. Wells was sort of an emissary between Eisner and the artists, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the instant he died was when things started turning sour for Disney animation, among other things.

But there’s also a lack of advice in another way. Let’s look at the credits, shall we? Notice a lack of any Native American consultants?

Without any idea of how the people acted, their actions are difficult to portray correctly. Of note is Pocahontas giving John Smith what is basically primitive aspirin for his injuries. Nice sentiment, but too convenient to be true.

In fact, that’s basically what the problem is here. Devoid of any connection to the real people, this film feels like AstroTurf: It looks pretty, but it just feels wrong. Still, it is trying, and that’s more than what was happening. I give this 6 Mickey Ears out of 10.

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This post is part of our Disney films project series.

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