Well they didn’t. But that’s nothing to be ashamed of considering just how good The Lion King was. But not only did their next film not top The Lion King, it wasn’t even that good in general.
In fairness, the idea to base a film on the historical figure Pocahontas, a Native American girl who supposedly saved the life of an Englishman John Smith (though a story that in all likelihood was just made up by Smith (Pocahontas conveniently happened to be a celebrity in England at the time he wrote it), is not a bad idea. But by not following actual history to any degree, Disneyfying this story meant relying on a clichéd device that we’d previously seen in the likes of The Last of the Mohicans and Dances With Wolves and later in Avatar. That being a heavy-handed message of the evils of white man and the importance of nature with a plot attached.
Set during the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in the early seventeenth century, English settlers reach North America (sailing in only one ship apparently) under the command of Governor Ratcliffe who’s determined to find gold in the New World. When ship’s captain and soldier John Smith, who has a reputation as a hunter of “savages”, meets Pocahontas, the daughter of the Powhatan Chief, she opens his eyes to the wonders of nature and the two fall in love. But a skirmish between the Native warriors and the English soldiers breaks out, fuelled by Ratcliffe’s hatred of Natives, and it’s up to the two of them to prevent war.
One of this films’ biggest mistakes is turning the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith into a forbidden love story. Historically Smith was older and Pocahontas much younger, so making this addition is not only factually misleading but it cheapens the characters’ interest to bring their people together out of diversity. A couple times they bring up how great it would be for the whites and the Natives to come together in peace, but at the end of the day, Pocahontas is putting her life on the line out of romantic feelings rather than a genuine interest in sparking compassion between their peoples. And it makes Pocahontas a very uninteresting character. All of her curiosity, spontaneity, and ambition is inherited from other Disney princesses, most notably Ariel. You never feel like she has a personality of her own. John Smith is about as compelling as his name. You don’t buy for a minute that he’s an experienced killer of Natives considering when he first meets one he treats her with kindness (has he never seen a female Native before?). He’s a clear audience surrogate as it’s through him we learn the films’ major lessons from Pocahontas but you can feel he’s just a vessel for this purpose, and he too is just kind of a typical Disney “prince”. Also, being voiced by Mel Gibson, he’s the least English sounding Englishman. The other characters are mostly forgettable too. Christian Bale voices a clumsy young sailor called Thomas who I think might have been more interesting in the John Smith role (they’ve deviated from history so much, why stop?); and it’s neat to hear Billy Connolly as one of the Scottish settlers, but there isn’t near enough of him. As for the villain, I love David Ogden Stiers, but this guy is incredibly bland. Ratcliffe who’s very loosely based on the actual governor of the time, is your generic moustache-twirling greedy villain. He’s after gold, though surely someone must have told him that gold is mostly found in the mountain ranges. Once again this is a villain who the movie goes out of its way to show is evil, in a pretty comical way, which isn’t helped by Stiers’ voice. They needed a distinctive Anthony Hopkins or Alan Rickman kind of voice for this part, rather than just the pompous windbag I get when I hear Stiers. He also voices Wiggins, Ratcliffe’s dogsbody, and is much better suited for that.
Another major problem this film has is that brings magic into the situation. Magic does not belong in an retelling of history! And it’s not even really exceptional magic like what we’ve seen before, it’s just a talking tree and swirling leaves that act as a Babel fish. John Smith’s ability to understand Pocahontas and vice versa is one of the laziest tricks I’ve seen in a Disney movie! The main reason the magic doesn’t work though is that the film is trying to apply real world logic everywhere else. Even Pocahontas’ animal friends don’t talk (also completely forgettable characters). While other Disney films are more vague in their setting, Pocahontas is clearly 1607 America. If the Natives have a talking willow on their side why not use that magic to fight off the English? It makes no sense and feels like purely an addition to make the film more recognizably Disney.
Like most of these stories, Pocahontas hits you over the head repeatedly with its message -it’s a movie that knows no subtlety. It’s biggest theme is on racial prejudices, but it’s presented entirely in black and white. Though the film does make a point to show the Native characters having similar prejudices, it’s clearly biased to the one side. The English draw first blood, they’re the ones invading Native territory and it’s extremely blatant in how evil it’s presenting white men and Ratcliffe in particular. Numerous times the word “savage” is used and every white character seemingly has an unfounded reason to hate “differences”. This even makes its way into the films’ songs like “Mine Mine Mine” and the hilariously unsubtle “Savages” (to its credit it’s one of the few instances to show both sides’ racism; but it also includes the lyric “they’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil”). In order to provoke discussion, a good film would show both sides and not sugar-coat it. Then again to be truthful to history, this was sometimes the case, white people were pretty barbaric to Natives when they met, and there still is racism in society. But for a movie that promotes tolerance it’s actually a little inadvertently racist. Don’t get me wrong, this is nowhere near Peter Pan levels of bad, but Pocahontas is so quick to label Native Americans as the good guys that it never gives them any character, they’re mostly just generic constructs. The only one with something of an interesting identity is Pocahontas’ friend Nakoma. But as for the Chief voiced by Russell Means, he’s just a basic Chief; Gordon Tootoosis’ Kekata is just a basic shaman; Kocoum is just a basic warrior. The English have both a little more screen-time and more diversity in character, even if it’s not much. They have comic relief, why don’t the Natives? There’s also the fact that though the movie climaxes with the established scene from the story, it goes a step further which I won’t spoil but it both unnecessarily flaunts how villainous Ratcliffe is, while also finding a way to make John Smith, not Pocahontas, the saviour of the tribe. It feels a little bit like whitewashing. The secondary theme of the movie is the importance of nature over civilization which can also be obnoxious at times. It’s on display most through the song “Colours of the Wind” which is probably Disney’s preachiest, but also one that’s pretty catchy and well composed. In fact the latter’s true of many of these songs, driven by an agenda though they may be, they’re still written by Alan Menken and still sound very nice. I do like “Steady as the Beating Drum” and “Just Around the Riverbend”. “The Virginia Company” has also proven to be an irritating ear-worm. The end song “If I Never Knew You” though feels like a tacked on pop track.
Of all these problems though the one thing Pocahontas does really well is it animation. The backgrounds are very pretty to look at it and you get the sense of this grand world of unexplored riches, both physical and mental. It’s an early North America you’d want to explore. The Powhatan settlement and Jamestown look good, and so does the ship (something the animators must have been aware of considering they devoted a pointless sequence to rescuing Thomas in a storm). And as is the case with Disney, the musical sequences are terrifically done, knowing just the kind of energy, lighting, and style is needed (at one point in “Colours of the Wind” it goes pastel which I thought was really interesting). That being said, the character animation particularly on the faces of Pocahontas, John Smith, and Nakoma looks a little off a lot of the time. It might be a stylistic choice, but their expressions seemed often vacant and constrictive.
Pocahontas fulfils a check-list of a lot of Disney characteristics, but it fails by putting them to actual history. Many of the Disney tropes are more obvious under such circumstances, and some like the addition of magic just confuse the reality. It also doesn’t help that the story type they chose to relate the historical episode through is a recycled one even by 1995, and the message of the film seems to take precedence over plot and characters. It has some good animation and a few memorable if slightly manipulative songs, but it’s not quite enough. This was the point where the Disney Renaissance began to decline (great timing too, as this was the same year Toy Story introduced the world to Pixar!) Pocahontas tried to stick to a formula in circumstances that demanded something else, but Disney’s next film would try something radically different. How would that risk pay off?
Next Week: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)