Friday, October 31, 2014


RELEASE DATE: Friday 23rd June 1995

Disney's 33rd official animated feature was also the first to be based on a true story. Captain John Smith sailed to America in 1607 with "The Virginia Company," a ship full of men determined to find gold in the New World. Smith documented many of the events that happened during the voyage and after they landed in Jamestown.

One of his most well-known stories was of a time he was captured by the local Powhatan tribe of Native Americans, who the English settlers had been feuding with. When the chief raised his club to messily execute Smith, the chief's daughter - a young girl named Matoaka, but nick-named "Pocahontas" or "Little Mischief" - threw herself over Smith, saving his life and securing his freedom.

Many historians have doubted the validity of Smith's story over the centuries, but there is no doubt that Pocahontas was a real person. Some years after her encounter with Captain Smith, she married a tobacco farmer named John Rolfe and had a son to him. She and Rolfe then sailed to London where she was met by King James himself.

Pocahontas, now called "Rebecca," had hardly left London before she became deathly ill and died before ever seeing her homeland again. So, nice happy story for a Disney movie, hey...?

 The only picture of the real Pocahontas.

Pocahontas is most notable for being the catalyst for Disney's "fall" in the mid-to-late 1990s. Not counting The Rescuers Down Under, Disney was on a constant upward trajectory with the popularity and box office earnings of its animated features. The Little Mermaid to Beauty and the Beast to Aladdin to The Lion King, Disney just got bigger and bigger. But Pocahontas failed to resonate with audiences in the same way its predecessors had. It's not surprising really; it's a very different film.

Originally director Eric Goldberg (who had lead the animation of the Genie in Aladdin) had planned Pocahontas to be much more in line with the earlier movies; faster and funnier, with talking animals to accompany the human characters. Unfortunately for him, the movie was taken in a different direction and given a lot more realistic tone, and the talking animals were given the boot. This is an early pencil test where Percy meets a turkey called Redfeather, who was going to be voiced by John Candy.

While Pocahontas certainly has its fans, it was generally viewed as a much weaker film than the ones preceding it, and after its release the public's adoration of all things Disney began to decline.

It's an interesting story choice that even though Pocahontas is the title character, most other characters are introduced before her. In London, a ship called the Susan Constant is ready to set sail for the New World, hoping to discover lots and lots of gold. A young man named Thomas bids his family farewell and joins his new crewmates aboard the ship. They welcome Captain John Smith aboard, a renowned adventurer whose job it will be to kill any Indians that get in their way.

The voyage is difficult and dangerous. The ship is caught in a storm, but Governor Ratcliffe, leader of the exposition, encourages the men to keep calm and carry on. (While John Ratcliffe was a real man, the portrayal in this film is entirely fictitious. In real life Ratcliffe encouraged trade with the Powhatan natives, until he was captured and suffered a gruesome death at their hands. Not surprisingly, none of that made it into the Disney film!) Both Ratcliffe and his servant Wiggins were voiced by David Ogden Stiers, who was known as the voice of Cogsworth. In some of the sessions, Stiers would have two-sided conversations with himself!

Meanwhile, in what's now known as Virginia, a young woman called Pocahontas is attempting her latest daredevil stunt.

Pocahontas's best friend Nakoma comes to tell her that her father - the chief of the Powhatan tribe - has returned from war. Pocahontas is also accompanied by her two animal companions: Flit, a highly-strung hummingbird, and Meeko, a cheeky and greedy raccoon.

Chief Powhatan proudly tells Pocahontas that she will wed the fierce warrior Kokoum, although she doesn't like the idea, on account of him being too serious. The chief tells her that as she faces her future, she needs to be steady like the river.

Pocahontas comes to a realisation: the river isn't steady at all! She wants a life of excitement and adventure, not to be stuck at home with a boring husband!

Pocahontas visits Grandmother Willow, an ancient tree that gives her advice from time to time. She tells Pocahontas to "listen with her heart" for the voice of the spirits. "Strange clouds," is what she hears. Climbing up to Grandmother Willow's highest branches, she is shocked to see exactly that... Strange clouds!

The English settlers have arrived! Ratcliffe claims the land in the name of King James and the men begin to set up a fort and dig for gold!

Meanwhile, Captain Smith is sent out as a scout. He wanders the terrain, unaware that he is being closely tailed.

Through a dramatic scene by a waterfall, John Smith and Pocahontas finally meet. Then, through some unknown Disney magic that makes no logical sense whatsoever, they can suddenly understand everything that the other person is saying.

As they begin to exchange cultures, some Powhatan men are observing the new visitors. One of them is injured by gunfire and Kokoum carries him back to the village where his strange wound is looked after.

Pocahontas is affronted by John Smith's assumption that she and her people are ignorant savages. She shows him how much the Native Americans know about the land and how it works, teaching him things he never knew he never knew.

Although Pocahontas knows how much trouble she would be in if her new relationship was discovered, she can't keep a secret forever, and soon Nekoma finds out about John Smith. Pocahontas takes her new friend to meet Grandmother Willow, who approves of him.

After giving Thomas some shooting tips, Smith attempts to convince the other settlers that the Powhatans aren't savages, and breaks the unfortunate news that there is no gold in the area. This news does not go down well with Ratcliffe, who accuses Smith of being a traitor.

Late at night, Smith sneaks out to meet Pocahontas. Ratcliffe instructs Thomas to follow him. At the same time, Kokoum has gone after Pocahontas. When he sees her kissing the foreigner, he attacks with all of his strength. Thomas, fearing for John's life, shoots Kokoum dead.

John Smith is captured and readied for execution the following morning. Pocahontas goes to see him in his tent and says her goodbyes. A song was written for this scene, "If I Never Knew You." Although it was cut from the film after being animated, it was re-inserted into an Extended Edition of the movie. It's a nice song, but it slows down what is an already slow movie.

As dawn approaches and Chief Powhatan prepares to kill John Smith, Ratcliffe leads the settlers in a rescue mission. War is imminent. Pocahontas suddenly realises that only she has the power to stop the fighting. Can she get there in time...?

Then the famous moment that the film has been leading up to. Just as Powhatan is about to smash John Smith's head on a rock, Pocahontas throws herself upon him and says, "If you want to kill him, you'll have to kill me too."

Powhatan, moved by his daughter's compassion, decides to let Smith go free. Ratcliffe is not convinced though, and shoots the chief. John Smith leaps in front of the bullet. (Note that this part of the story is entirely fabricated...) Apparently the only way for him to survive is for him to take the long and perilous journey back to England, so away he goes, while Pocahontas waves goodbye from the cliff.

IRVYNE: Yeah, the ending is dumb. He's had a bullet shot straight through his torso (although, in true family-friendly Disney tradition, no blood is ever shown) and they're going to ship him back to England while it festers? I'm not sure exactly how long the journey would take, but I'm guessing somewhere between "weeks" and "months." I'm pretty sure he wouldn't survive. But anyway.

I don't think anyone would argue that the story composition and characters in Pocahontas are nowhere near as strong as they were in other films in the Disney Renaissance. It's not BAD by any means, it still works quite well as a romantic period drama, but compared to its contemporaries, it's a weaker story.

Let's start with the leads. John Smith would have to be the most bland, boring leading man since Prince Phillip. I'm not sure what aspect of him is supposed to make the audience cheer for him, except for maybe his adventurous spirit. I have no idea what Pocahontas sees in him. His voicework (Mel Gibson) is also below average. Gibson and the film's directors don't seem to be able to decide whether they wanted him to speak with an English or American accent, and so he seems to interchange the two at will.

Pocahontas is at least a little bit more fun. She's the kind of carefree spirit would would dive headfirst off a waterfall or take her wooden canoe down river rapids. When the big dramas happen in the second half of the movie though, she's just Mopey McMopeson. She is visually a very appealing character though. (Another stellar performance from Glen Keane and his crew)

The comedy with the animals (particularly Meeko) actually hits pretty well, but it's completely removed from the main story. I feel like the animals were just thrown in there to keep the kids entertained from time to time. Then there's the horrible crime of casting comedy legend Billy Connolly, and not giving him a single funny line in the whole movie!

To invest in this story is to seriously suspend your disbelief. I know that there is a talking tree, but the weirdest plot point in this film is how Pocahontas and John Smith speak entirely different languages, the wind blows past them, and suddenly they understand each other perfectly. None of the other Indians understand Smith, and Smith himself fails to understand any of them. And when he's captured, for some reason, Pocahontas never offers her services as a translator. It just makes no sense.

HOWEVER. After all of that negativity, I still somehow enjoy watching this film. While it is bogged down with trying to be serious and dramatic it can come across as dull, but I have to admit, the core story still kind of works.

I am somewhat torn with my thoughts on the art style in Pocahontas. On the one hand, the backgrounds are absolutely stunning. Some of the most beautiful use of saturated colour in a Disney film.

The Virginian locations have lots of tall verticality, and with the rivers and trees, it just looks like a very appealing place to visit. The characters though, are another story. It was obviously a very conscious decision to give Pocahontas's characters a very different style to the traditional Disney look. For one thing, the humans are a lot more realistically proportioned. (Ratcliffe and Wiggins notwithstanding...)  Eyes are smaller, bodies are longer and they are shaped much more like real people.

The other big change is that they decided to make everything look very flat. By 1995 audiences had become accustomed to seeing an advanced level of shading in their animated features, thanks to the C.A.P.S. system making such rendering much easier to achieve than on hand-painted cels. For some reason for which I'm yet to find a definitive answer for, it was decided that the characters in this movie would have very little shading, giving them a very flat-papery look. I appreciate that it was a deliberate decision to create a particular art style, but I still prefer the more "classic" Disney look.

Having said that, I love the animation on Pocahontas. She has a real subtlety to her movement and expressions that is a lot more restrained than other Disney princesses. She owns the screen in every scene she is in. And that hair! Oh, that hair!

There are definitely some stunning works of art in Pocahontas, but the realistic models and flat shading unfortunately don't endear the characters as much to the audience. It also didn't help that in 1995 another animated movie came out... a particularly popular and groundbreaking movie... and it looked like this.

After finishing Aladdin alongside lyricist Tim Rice, Alan Menken was looking for a new writing partner for Pocahontas. Feeling that Stephen Schwartz was a very "American" styled writer, Menken sought him out to see if such a partnership might work.

Schwartz, who was an established composer himself, having penned stage classics such as Pippin, Godspell and - a few years later - Wicked, agreed to be lyricist to Menken's music. On their first meeting they did a trial session to see if such a partnership could work. They left the session with "Colors of the Wind." It was pretty clear then that this partnership could definitely work, and the pair have remained good friends since.

Oh, and did I mention they won two Oscars for Pocahontas? (Menken's usual "Best Song" / "Best Score" combo)

Pocahontas is another classic Menken score filled with catchy tunes and emotional themes. Add to that Schwartz very clever use of the English language and you have a winning soundtrack. "Colors of the Wind" is a classic Disney song in every sense: a beautiful melody matched with lyrics such as:
"You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you.
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger,
You'll learn things you never knew you never knew."

Probably the next most popular song in the soundtrack is Pocahontas's "I Want" song, "Just Around The Riverbend." Ratcliffe's "Mine Mine Mine" song makes good use of the double-meaning of the word "mine" and is the closest the movie has to a show-stopper tune. It's fun and jolly. The "Savages" double-song at the movie's end has some uncomfortable lyrics, but works to display the intense anger and hatred of both communities. I love the way Pocahontas's melody intersects with all of the others. The other songs are quiet and unobtrusive. "The Virginia Comany" to introduce the Brits, "Steady As The Beating Drum" to introduce the Native Americans, and "Listen With Your Heart" as Grandmother Willow's theme.

The score is as wonderful as Menken scores always are, utilising appropriate instruments to the culture being represented and building big on the emotional scenes. All up, the music is one of the best things about Pocahontas.
Pocahontas left a sour taste in some peoples' mouths, coming hot on the heels of The Lion King. Truth be told, it's still quite a good movie, but it's not up there with the rest of its peers.

ANNA: In the "Waking Sleeping Beauty" documentary we watched, they said that they were expecting Pocahontas to be a bigger success than The Lion King.

IRVYNE: Yeah, they were trying to make the kind of movie that wins Academy Awards. Big emotional romantic period dramas win awards, so that's what they decided to do.

MALEFICENT: I would say that Pocahontas is up there with the “better” Disney movies, but it’s not one of my favourites. I’m really not that interested in American history. And it’s completely removed from the real story anyway.

HAKU: It’s missing the “heart” that The Lion King has. It just feels a bit hollow.

IRVYNE: I agree. I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that it's really hard to actually care about this love story! What the heck does Pocahontas see in John Smith that makes her betray her own people? How are they even communicating??

ANNA: At least Pocahontas’s hair is amazing!

HAKU: The hair animation is good, but I don’t like the stylised look of the characters at all.

IRVYNE: They’re more realistically proportioned than the usual Disney characters. They have much smaller eyes.

WENDY: The girls still have tiny waists though.

HAKU: The backgrounds are nice.

IRVYNE: The backgrounds are fantastic!

MALEFICENT: Yes, the backgrounds are pretty. I like the way they drew the Indians. There is also some nice abstract artwork from time to time, like in Colors of the Wind.

IRVYNE: What do we think of the characters? Does anyone else feel that John Smith is just a really dull protagonist?

HAKU: Yes.

MALEFICENT: I like the romance between the characters. I think it’s really beautiful.

IRVYNE: I don’t think the romance was necessary to tell this story. It turns what could have been a really interesting plot into a soap opera. I’d love to see an alternate version where they didn’t try to shoehorn Romeo and Juliet into it.

MALEFICENT: I’ve got to say, Ratcliffe is one of my least favourite bad guys. He’s not even scary, he’s just annoying. Just greedy. And his “hey nonny nonny” chorus annoys me every time.

ANNA: Meeko and Flit are cute.

SHENZI: I like how Percy and Meeko have their own little story of overcoming differences.

MALEFICENT: Yes, all of the side characters are great in this movie. Not just the animals, but all of the extra people characters as well.

IRVYNE: There does seem to be a massive disconnect though, in the wacky animals’ story and the very serious humans’ story. I shudder to think what it would have been like WITHOUT the animals, but they really seem to be in a different style of movie altogether. I’m sure there are many people who find the animals’ story more interesting and entertaining than the humans.

ANNA: It’s fascinating how people can get shot and never actually bleed!

IRVYNE: It’s Disney magic!

SHENZI: Grandmother Willow is creepy but awesome.

MALEFICENT: She is. She’s like a creepy, filthy old granny.

IRVYNE: Do you like the music?

MALEFICENT: Yes, the songs are brilliant. They’re the kind of songs that stick with you forever. Every time a song starts I say, “Oh, I love this song.”

SHENZI: The “Savages” song is like the quintet in West Side Story.
HAKU: I find this movie to be pretty preachy.

IRVYNE: It feels a bit like they were going out of their way to be politically correct, especially in regards to all the American-Indians. They really didn’t want to offend anybody. I don’t think this movie deserves the bashing that it generally gets. Its biggest problem was it followed The Lion King, and that film was a phenomenon. It’s not terrible. I mean, it’s obviously not as good as the last few we’ve watched, but it’s not without some redeeming features. For me, it’s the music and the colours. They’re stunning. The artwork – backgrounds in particular – are beautiful.

WENDY: Apparently Jamestown has mood lighting all the time.


IRVYNE: But overall its biggest problem is it’s just a bit too serious… a bit too Kokoum!

SHENZI: How ironic.