The Disney Princess Project: “Pocahontas”

Can YOU paint with all the colors of the wind?Previously:
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Cinderella
Sleeping Beauty
Beauty and the Beast

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.Savages! Savages! Savages! Barely even human.

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.

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The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “Pocahontas” (1995)

Can YOU paint with all the colors of the wind?

Previously:
The Swan Princess
,
Mulan

Technically, I should have watched The Lion King, but Netflix doesn’t have it. Period. So, if you want to watch people humping trash on instant or watch The Lion King, you are out of luck.

Pocahontas is Disney’s very politically correct, preachy 1995 release directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg that asks who is a savage and what makes a man a savage.

The film heavily fictionalizes the story of Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka; Pocahontas was a nickname given to her that means “the naughty one.” In this film, Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson) comes to the New World with the Virginia Company, which was specifically the London Company, on a ship with Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Steirs), who might be a fictionalization of John Ratcliffe, a captain of a ship that sailed to Jamestown to find a colony. As the crew members set sail for gold (and tobacco, but that’s never mentioned), we see the prosperous Powahatan people, led by Chief Powahatan (Russel Means). His daughter, Pocahontas (Irene Bedard) is intended to marry the brave warrior Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall). Pocahontas does not want to marry Kocoum because “he’s so serious.” In the mean time, the settlers land and begin to dig up the earth in search of gold. Smith, while out looking for “savages” meets Pocahontas and almost shoots her, but he finds her beautiful. She then teaches him about her culture and he teaches her about his. When he mentions “savages” and “uncivilized people,” Pocahontas questions him, by way of the song “Colors of the Wind,” about his beliefs about what makes a person a person and whether or not he can paint with all the colors of the wind.

Meanwhile, back at the fort settlement, the Powahatan warriors go to the camp to see what the white men, warned to be dangerous, are up to. Ratcliffe sees the warriors and everyone starts shooting, which results in a warrior being injured. The Powahatans, having physical evidence of the destruction of the settlers, forbid the people from going near the settlers. In the mean time, Pocahontas and John Smith are still seen going around, being taught about their different cultures. They decide to meet later that day at Grandmother Willow (Linda Hunt), which requires Smith sneaking out of the camp. Ratcliffe sees him sneaking out and sends Thomas (Christian Bale) after him. In the meantime, Pocahontas’ friend, Nakoma (Michelle St. John), tells Kocoum, who cares about Pocahontas’ safety, about the danger the titular character is in. At Grandmother WIllow, Pocahontas and John decide that he should meet her father to convince her that the settlers aren’t evil. Excited, the two kiss, but Kocoum attacks Smith. Thomas, seeing the 1). a native and 2). a native attacking a kinsman, shoots Kocoum, killing him. Smith sends him away and the other Powahatans see the dead Kocoum and capture Smith because Pocahontas doesn’t say, “Hey, it was this red head, not this guy” and the warriors have no reason to think that Smith didn’t kill Kocoum. Thomas reveals that Smith has been captured, but not that he shot a native. THIS MEANS WAR. Also, John Smith gets to be clubbed to death at sunrise for his crimes. Pocahontas saves him from the clubbing because she loves him. The people decide to not fight and Ratcliffe shoots Smith, injures him, and is arrested and to be tried for treason. Smith goes back to England because his chances of surviving a gunshot wound are so much better on a ship in the 1600s than if he says in the New World. Pocahontas, on the other hand, stays, but she still loves him.

In the real version of the story of Pocahontas, she would have been ten when she would have saved John Smith from a clubbing, which might have taken place. It’s debatable. (For more info, please see this information from the Powahatan Nation, written by Chief Roy Crazy Horse.) When Pocahontas was a young woman, which is how old she is in the film, she was captured by the settlers and later married to John Rolfe, who baptized her as Rebecca. She died in 1617 from either smallpox or tuberculosis. More importantly, there was no romance between her and John Smith. John Ratcliffe was not the greedy man that we see in Governor Ratcliffe. A majority of the key plot elements are invented and those key plot elements make Pocahontas a ridiculous movie.

Okay, maybe Pocahontas is ridiculous to me because I’m an adult and I paid attention in school, which does ruin the film for me. But the film is ridiculous on the same level I find Romeo and Juliet to be ridiculous. Two star-crossed lovers meet and within the course of a few days, they’re madly in love and willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. Except Romeo and Juliet covers more time and shows the tragedy of young infatuation. In Pocahontas, the only consequence carried out for the two characters’ constant disobedience of the instructions they are given is that Kocoum is killed, which is indirect. My biggest problem with Pocahontas as a film itself is that Pocahontas declares that she loves John Smith and is willing to die to protect him after knowing him for less than a week.

The villain in this film, Governor Ratcliffe, is slightly more terrifying than Rothbart in The Swan Princess. Ratcliffe is fueled by greed and just wants some gold. He will have the other settlers keep digging until they find gold and if any natives get in his way, he’ll kill them. That’s really his sole mindset for the entire film and the most he does is bellow directions and orders to his men. Yes, he shoots John Smith, but he was aiming to shoot Chief Powahatan. Ratcliffe gets the shaft in this film because he’s going back to England to be tried for treason, but Ratcliffe doesn’t do anything in this film that seems like treason.

(Oh, and by the way, King James I would have just been King James. They would have not said “King James the First.”)

The reason why I didn’t mention the Cute Little Animal Characters was because they only provide a subplot in this film that is completely unnecessary. Meeko, Pocahontas’ pet raccoon, runs into Ratcliffe’s pug Percy when he gets onto the ship because the ship has food and Meeko loves eating. This results in Percy chasing Meeko around while Flit, a hummingbird, is very serious like Kocoum. The film could still easily function without the Cute Little Animal Characters. In fact, the Cute Little Animal Characters in Pocahontas don’t even help in key plot situations, like the Cute Little Animal Characters in other films I’ve looked at. They’re just there to serve as sidekicks and have some fun animal creature in the film. But, honestly, watching Percy chase Meeko is a lot more interesting than pretty much anything else that happens in the film.

As for Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s songs, they have mostly unmemorable lyrics. I can remember the melodies for the songs, but try singing all of “Just Around the Riverbend” or “Colors of the Wind.” And the song “Savages” tries to convey a point that I think is better made in these lyrics of “The Mob Song” by Menken and Howard Ashman in Beauty and the Beast:

“We don’t like
What we don’t
Understand, in fact it scares us,
And this monster is mysterious at least.”

As for the question of what makes a person a savage, the film has us side with the Powahatans for not being the savages. They retaliate after being attacked and their violence is justified. They’re the only people in this film that have any soldiers killed. They have every reason for doing what they do. Even when Kocoum attacks John Smith, it is justifiable. He has no clue what John Smith might be doing to Pocahontas and he’s seen John Smith’s people severely wound one of his men.

But Disney, in an attempt to be politically correct, has characters lacking depth to try to get us to learn that maybe we’d be better off if we just learned to understand our differences. But this point is best conveyed not by the romance between John Smith and Pocahontas, but by Percy and Meeko stopping their pursuit after being yelled at by Grandmother Willow and, at the end of the film, being dressed in each other’s “native” garb, having reconciled their differences. Pocahontas proves that a well-meaning film can be a mess (MCBAIN) when it lacks depth or has ridiculous situations*.

*See also: McBain