Published on May 21st, 2013 | by Clint Davis
Summary: An oft-neglected chapter of the Disney renaissance, Pocahontas acts as a spiritual successor to The Lion King in both look and message--but isn't quite as awe-inspiring.
G | 81 min.
Director: Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg | Screenplay: Carl Binder, Susannah Grant, Philip LaZebnik
Starring: Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson, David Ogden Stiers, Christian Bale
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures | Distribution: Buena Vista Distribution
By summer 1995, Disney ruled the animation world with an iron fist, and would continue to do so for about another six years. For children like me that grew up in the late-’80s to late-’90s, their films were viewed daily, giving us a very personal relationship with Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, etc… In 1994, the studio uncorked arguably the greatest movie in their history with The Lion King–which was the cartoon equivalent to Lawrence of Arabia from a visual standpoint.
For Disney’s followup to that blockbuster, they left the African jungle for a trip to the New World in the 1600’s. Pocahontas focuses on the tumultuous relationship between Native Americans and the invading English, through the love story of its title character and colonist John Smith (Mel Gibson). The two fall for one another at first sight, of course in direct contrast to the way their respective “tribes” view each other.
From a plot standpoint, Pocahontas is a typical Disney fairy tale. Pocahontas is a princess, Smith is her blonde-haired blue-eyed square-jawed pursuer, there’s a nasty villain bent on personal gains, there are sidekick animals who serve as comic relief, and all problems are solved in under 90-minutes with the help of some musical numbers! From the opening shots of treetops, rivers, and cliffs, the animators used every earthy color in the palette to create a look that is relaxing and gorgeous–much like its predecessor’s take on the African plains. However, this movie isn’t simply a cookie-cutter retread of their previous successes–several risks are taken.
Disney’s films have typically taken place in exotic locations but the backdrop of this film is forestry and corn fields–not exactly a trip to the Kingdom of Agrabah. Also, for a movie that is overtly green in its message of conservation, loving nature, and accepting others, it’s one of Disney’s few films not to feature talking animals. Rather than have their protagonist speak to her woodland companions, she talks to the actual trees–showing her relationship with the Earth itself. This movie also takes a slight risk by including an obvious undercurrent of racism in the plot as both sides refer to the others as “savages”, making everyone look bad in the process.
Unfortunately, Pocahontas preaches diversity better than it practices it. Gibson doesn’t even attempt to put an English accent on, making him sound like a typical Disney prince (whom all sound white bread American even though they never are). The movie also marginalizes the centuries of oppression faced by Native Americans when it simply shows everyone being friends at the end of the film–no smallpox blankets are handed out and no trail of tears is ever to be taken. The aforementioned song “Savages” is no doubt one of the most controversial in Disney history because its language is flat-out inflammatory. I understand what the songwriters were going for in this number but by making the Native Americans look as bad as the invading settlers they are presenting some major revisionist’s history.
Overall, the message of this film is one of acceptance of others, though. Both sides suffer from fear of the unknown and are weary to trust anyone that doesn’t look, sound, and think like them–of course in real life, the Natives were right to be paranoid. The animation is ambitious, the musical sequences “Colors of the Wind” and “Just Around the Riverbend” are highlights, and Christian Bale does well as the innocent young apprentice to John Smith. If you somehow missed Pocahontas when it was first out, catch it now on Netflix or at your video store because it’s another in a long line of strong films from Disney’s renaissance period.