Worlds collide when Governor Ratcliffe and his ship full of merry men sail up to the Virginia coast and found the settlement of Jamestown. Pocahontas, the daughter of the local Native American chief Powhatan, soon encounters one of the new settlers, a handsome blonde man named John Smith. She opens his eyes to the beauty and magic of the natural world as he tells her of the settlers’ quest for gold. When one of the settlers accidentally kills Pocahontas’ betrothed, Smith is taken prisoner by Powhatan and scheduled for execution at dawn. Ratcliffe and his men prepare to go to war with the Native Americans, who have also summoned reinforcements to fight with the white men.
Pocahontas is a Disney movie I’ve both seen and not seen. Over the years, I have seen many clips from the movie, and I know the historical account of her life. But I’ve never actually sat down and watched the movie from beginning to end. Now that I have…well, I kind of wish I hadn’t.
There are just so many problems with this version of Pocahontas’ life! I don’t even know where to start. OK. Let’s just dive in with the nitpicking.
To start: magic. So is this a classic Disney fairy tale? If they want to make a Native American fairy tale, I have no problem with that. I assume this is what Disney has done, because they’ve introduced the element of magic into the story through Grandmother Willow. Again, not bad in and of itself. But when the storyteller marries magical fantasy to historical events with real people, this is where I have a problem. Granting Pocahontas and John Smith the ability to immediately understand each other’s languages because magic? No. No no. No. This is the most egregious abuse of magic in the story, but you could also argue that Pocahontas’ entire ability to commune with nature is a bit too “mystical Native American” to work because once again, this is a historical narrative involving real people.
Then again, there’s no attempt to stay faithful to history here. Pocahontas was a child of ten or eleven, not a supermodel earth goddess in her early twenties. John Smith was not a golden Adonis but a ginger-headed man with a thick beard and, if the illustrations of his books are to be believed, on the short side. The two of them most assuredly did not share a romantic relationship of any kind. Whether she actually saved him from death is debatable – did the attempted execution actually happen? (Some historians think not.) If it did, was it a ritual ceremony misinterpreted by Smith? John Ratcliffe did not seek gold in the New World. His personality is largely unknown, but Smith described him as overgenerous in trade with the Native Americans so it seems rather unfair to give his name to a villain like the one shown in this film. Certainly, John Smith never saved Powhatan’s life by taking a bullet for him. Also – obviously – there was no “happily ever after” at the end, with Native Americans and Jamestown settlers coexisting peacefully.
So the story’s a mess. What else?
The animation is beautiful. The humans are the least “cartoonish” of the entire Disney canon, which has interesting results. Pocahontas’ athletic, powerful build reminds you less of Belle and Jasmine and more of Wonder Woman, Storm or Xena. She looks like a superheroine, not a princess. It makes her appear incredibly incongruous when she is standing next to the likes of Ariel and Jasmine, whose heads are bigger than their waists. The rest of the Native Americans are generally buff and beautiful, albeit with hairstyles one rarely sees outside history books and the occasional haute couture photo shoot. But then we have Ratcliffe, a grossly obese caricature with small, piggy eyes, giant hatchet nose. With his foppish hairstyle, complete with twee little bows, he’s so over-the-top that his existence clashes with the realism of the others.
But man, those backgrounds. They seem very reminiscent of Eyvind Earle’s work for Sleeping Beauty, married to the simple styling of Mary Blair. No? Just me? At any rate, I thought them quite beautiful and effective at setting the scene. I always found it startling to look at these beautiful painted forests and trees and then see the computer-generated face of Grandmother Willow chattering away. I think that’s CG? Sure looks different from the rest of the animation, anyway.
Oddly, I found the animals to be some of the best bits of the movie. Usually I cringe at animal sidekicks, but the comic relief of Meeko and Flit and Percy had the sort of manic quality that makes Looney Tunes so entertaining. It’s great slapstick, and convincing as animals. Meeko has the mischievous, curious personality of a raccoon, while Percy is the perfect pampered pug. It works, especially since the heavy-handed messages delivered through the rest of the film are so darn serious.
I have long had a fondness for “Colors of the Wind”, because I think it’s a beautiful marriage of song and animation. The brief sequence where the characters look like they’re being drawn with chalk or pastels might be my favorite bit of animation in anything, ever. But most of the songs from Pocahontas are pretty forgettable, I think. “Just Around the Riverbend” is quite wordy, and the pitter-patter pace of the lyrics doesn’t quite match the music or the animation. “Savages” just seems guaranteed to offend someone. Are there other songs? If so, they’re quite forgettable. I know Ratcliffe and the colonists had one or two, but apparently they made no impression because I can’t recall them and I just watched this movie on New Year’s Eve!
I think Disney quickly realized the problems with the revisionist history and the princess story disguised as a historical epic, because this is the first and only time they attempted it. As if to make up for all the problems with the story, they soon released two more Native American stories: The Emperor’s New Groove in 2000 and Brother Bear in 2003. Both movies are tonally different form Pocahontas : New Groove is a satirical comedy and Brother Bear an animal fairy tale. After all, Native American folklore is a rich source of stories, if the studio can just figure out how to tell them successfully.
But the animation is so darn pretty…