‘You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you’ – Pocahontas
In 1995, Walt Disney Feature Animation released Pocahontas. It was five years in the making, with production beginning the same time as The Lion King. It was believed by many at the Disney studio that it would actually do a lot better than The Lion King. However, on imdb.com the film has a rating of 6.1 out of 10, and Rotten Tomatoes gives it only 56%; with many critics slating it. In fact, Pocahontas was a box office hit, and it also scooped up numerous awards for animation and for its soundtrack. It also holds the record for the largest movie premiere in history, packing a mammoth 100,000 people into Central Park on June 10th 1995. So what went wrong?
I personally think that Pocahontas is simply different, and that may have been the ‘problem’ with it; that it was too unfamiliar to its audience compared to previous Disney movies. In comparison to many of the earlier Disney movies, its storyline is much slower and quieter in a way, more of a lake than a waterfall. It is less theatrical and more like reality. The main difference with Pocahontas in comparison to previous Disney films is that the main character was a real person, who lived around 1595 and died in 1617. He story is quite interesting, especially considering that her life was very short. Apparently she was ten years old the first time she met John Smith, though I understand why in today’s society Disney chose to portray her as a fully grown woman rather than a child.
Pocahontas means ‘little mischief’, and although she is not so little in size, she possesses the qualities of a child: freedom, excitement and curiosity, as well as being very smart and cautious at the same time. Her styling is very angular, though different to the styles used in Hercules and Sleeping Beauty. Her face is quite flat, and her features are simplified. Her eyes are more of an arched shaped than they are rounded, and throughout most of the film they are simply black, not showing any colour at all. Her nose is simplified to the point of only her nostrils showing, and her jaw is much stronger than many of the other Disney heroines. Her hair symbolizes her free spirit, long, flowing and full of life.
Even the main character’s two sidekicks do not talk, to allow the dialogue to come totally from the adult figures, and, debatably, taking away the humour that we had come to love from Timon and Pumbaa in The Lion King. Originally Pocahontas’ sidekick was going to be a turkey, voiced by John Candy, and he had apparently recorded a lot of the lines for it already before his death. Whether it was the loss of Mr. Candy, or for creative reasons, the turkey got the boot, to make way for the quieter pair of Flit and Meeko. They are quite amusing and cute, but their lack of speech seems to distance them from being characters the audience can warm to. The humour is made up however, in the character of Grandmother Willow, who does have a voice. She is old, wise, and feisty, which is understandable since she is a very large willow tree who has most likely been standing there for hundreds of years; ‘don’t worry…my bark is worse than my bite’. Governor Ratcliffe is the villain, he is greedy and pompous, hearing that there is gold in Virginia, and not letting anyone or anything stand in his way until he gets it. He is played by David Ogden Stiers (Beauty and the Beast,The Hunchback of Notre Dame), who also plays Ratcliffe’s manservant, Wiggins. Ratcliffe is accompanied by his small, white dog named Percy (who is also mute), who seems to validate the saying about dogs looking like their owners and vice versa. Governor Ratcliffe always refers to the natives as ‘savages’, whereas John Smith uses more respectful words such as ‘Indians’.
John Smith (Mel Gibson) is the story’s love interest, and is technically on the side of Ratcliffe, since he came to the new world with him and the ship’s crew looking for riches. However, he is much kinder and more considerate to the natives and their land. Pocahontas is the daughter of Chief Powhatan, leader of the Powhatan people, and he is wise like Grandmother Willow, and offers Pocahontas a lot of guidance, trying to send her down the correct path in life. Christian Bale plays Thomas, John Smith’s bumbling but kind-hearted friend, but he isn’t one of the main characters. There is also a cameo from Billy Connolly, as one of Ratcliffe’s men. ‘Alright you howling nutter, get to work’ he snaps at one of his colleagues.
The beginning of the film has a perfect transition between the two separate worlds seen in the film, through the songs ‘Virginia Company’ and ‘Steady as the Beating Drum’. We are introduced to the landscape of Pocahontas’ home, with lots of earthy colours and trees which reach to the heavens, along with a beautiful pink sky. This is in contrast to the cold greys and blues we see at the beginning of the film in London, when Ratcliffe and his men are boarding their ship. We are then introduced to our heroine, and the song ‘Just Around the Riverbend’ tells of her personality, and how she wishes to be free in spirit.
When Pocahontas first sees a ship coming towards her land, she thinks that the ship’s sails are ‘strange clouds’, having never seeing anything like it before. Smith’s first meeting with Pocahontas is very beautiful, and conveys a sense of feeling, yet not quite understanding, between the two characters. John Smith puts down his gun, after pointing it at her initially, yet she still runs away. It isn’t long before the two of them are introducing themselves and getting to know one another.
Cue the song ‘Colours of the Wind’, which apparently set the tone for the film before it went into production. It is a very powerful song, with great lyrics and wonderfully colourful backgrounds to match. The song ‘Mine Mine Mine’ is a clever play on words, since Ratcliffe believes that the gold is ‘mine’ whilst he orders his men to ‘mine’ for it. The song is the traditional Disney theatrical number, with lots of Busby Berkley type imagery of men performing synchronized shovel dancing, and trees being shot down in unison against flaming orange backgrounds. Another impressive song is ‘Savages’, sung in two parts, with fantastic lyrics and use of staging, with the sky turning redder and redder, almost as though it is on fire. Ratcliffe and his army of men are similar to the angry villagers in Beauty and the Beast, and here you can find a change of lyrics in the song to what is on the soundtrack. The change is understandable when listening to the original lyrics:
Original – “Dirty redskin devils, now we sound the drums of war!”
In film – “Dirty shrieking devils, now we sound the drums of war!”
Original – “What can you expect/ from filthy little heathens? / Their whole disgusting race is like a curse!”
In film – “What can you expect/ from filthy little heathens? / Here’s what you get when the races are diverse!”
Overall, the story is a bit different from what you would expect from the ‘average’ Disney film; however it boasts wonderful songs, a good helping of comedy, as well as bags full of charm and maturity.
I have to praise the special features on this one. It is a two disc set, so it is expected that the features should be good, and they don’t disappoint. ‘The Making of Pocahontas’ is 27 minutes long, then there are five more sections of goodies: Production, Design, Music, Abandoned Concepts and The Release. I have decided not to review all of these because anything I wanted to include has been written about above, and also I urge you to watch them for yourself, as they are a wealth of information!
I give this movie 4 Tinks.