My opinion of “Pocahontas” is known as I nearly eviscerated it when writing The Great ’90s Animated Film Project. After watching “Cinderella,” “Pocahontas” feels like a masterpiece, so this will not be the scathing post you were expecting.
“Pocahontas” tells the tale of Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), a free-spirited Native American woman who is the daughter of Chief Powahatan (Russel Means). Her hand has been given in marriage to Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall), which is not someone she wants to marry because of how serious he is. Meanwhile, Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson) arrives in The New World with The Virginia Company, led by Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Steirs). Upon arrival, he searches the land and eventually meets Pocahontas, whom he falls in love with. We figure out that they both fall in love by leaves and symbols swirling around them. However, as it is said many times within the first thirty minutes of the film the natives are savages and cannot be trusted, so let’s ravage their land in search of gold that does not exist. Since they are of two different groups of people, Pocahontas and John Smith’s “love” is threatened.
The film starts off with a prologue where we see a painting of London. It seems, like many other things in this film, an attempt to be like “Beauty and the Beast,” but constantly falling short. The painting feels more like the opening of the storybook in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” than the stained glass in “Beauty and the Beast” as its a place setting, but not as a way of telling us what’s going on. The film also ends with a painting depicting Pocahontas saying goodbye to John Smith, which again feels like a “book-end” that we have seen in the previous films. But this feels like a nice little artistic touch rather than something that has a real purpose, like the stained glass in “Beauty and the Beast” or the storybooks.
But why focus on one minor detail when there are numerous flaws with Pocahontas? First of all, the film features one of the weakest villains in a Disney film. Ratcliffe, although determined to get his gold, never really terrifies you like numerous other Disney villains. After all, anyone on that ship, even John Smith before he meets Pocahontas, could have attacked the tribe living where they settled. We also have John Smith, who manages to be an incredibly bland character despite having lots of screen time and an actual name. He’s dashing, has a weird American accent for being English and is nice to Pocahontas, although he does say some insulting things to her. There will be more on her rejecting Kocoum but falling for John Smith later.
What is oddly weak in this film is the score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. While the two later teamed up and wrote the fantastic score for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” most of the score feels incredibly unmemorable. Sure, “Colors of the Wind” is the best-known song, but it feels like a lecture given in song from Pocahontas, set to scenes that feel ready-made for a music video on Disney Channel.
The best song in the whole film happens to be “Savages,” a prelude to potential war between the tribe and the settlers. Like I mentioned in my earlier post on “Pocahontas,” “Savages” is a weaker version of “The Mob Song” in “Beauty and the Beast,” but “Savages” is the catchiest, most energetic song in the entire film. It also provides my favorite bit of animation in the film.
The biggest problem with this film is that it feels like it wants to be a Very Important Film, but Disney films shouldn’t feel like a didactic film. You watch a Disney film to have an escape from the outside world, not to be lectured on the sins of some of our European ancestors. And if Disney wants us to constantly cheer for the Native Americans, it works well since I find the settlers to be straw Evil White Men who are incredibly whitewashed.
But is Pocahontas a Good Role Model for Children? No.
In the beginning, Pocahontas is an incredibly free-spirited woman who is loyal to her tribe. By the end of the film, she has let her infatuation with an English settler whom she just met threaten the safety of her entire tribe. Additionally, when Kocoum is shot, she fails to tell the truth about who killed him. She could easily say, “Father, I saw the man who shot Kocoum. It was a red-haired white man,” but no, she lets John Smith remain tied inside of a tent so they can have a big power ballad.
Additionally, I find it a bit odd that her reasons for rejecting Kocoum are a confusing dream and him being “so serious.” It is established that Kocoum is a skilled warrior who has helped lead the tribe to victory against enemies. Kocoum also happens to be rather hunky and cares very much about Pocahontas’ safety. Sure, history dictates that Pocahontas ends up with a white settler–although it was John Rolfe, not John Smith–but in the line of Disney Princesses who pick one man over another, this is the most confusing.
Perhaps it’s because of “Cinderella” my usual disdain for this film is tempered, but “Pocahontas” is still a bad film that is worth skipping. Honestly, if you are really interested in watching a Disney film with “Pocahontas” in it, you might as well watch the sequel.