In honor of ACCA 1995, I’ve decided to pick a few titles that were special to my seven-year-old self that year. Don’t assume it’ll be all kids movies….my parents were pretty lenient. I decided to start off with a safe, kid-friendly movie to kick things off.
The minute Walt Disney Studios decided to adapt the Pocahontas tale for the big-screen, they had to expect problems. The story has become a romanticized examination of early intolerance and love transcending all for many directors, despite critiques of historical inaccuracy and pedophilia. Disney is definitely firing on all cylinders with the music by the amazing duo of Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz, but the plot completely falls apart for adults and will go over the heads of children. For Disney fans, Pocahontas also illustrates the growing dependence on cutesy, mute animal side characters, as well as a shift in the appearance of Disney’s “princes.”
John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson) is an explorer with the Virginia Company. He’s headed to the “new world” to look for gold for the evil Governor Ratcliffe (voiced by David Ogden Stiers). Once the settlers arrive they immediately fear the Native Americans will attack them, but when Smith meets the beautiful Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard) the two cultures will be forced to meet.
I’ll get the pros out-of-the-way before discussing this problematic foray into Disney’s attempt at “history.” The songs keep audiences engaged and able to brush aside the plot complications. Menken and Schwartz would become quite the team, crafting incredibly forceful songs for movies that had iffy plots (they scored the equally problematic Hunchback of Notre Dame and went on to score Enchanted and Tangled). Influenced by cliché Native American elements like drums and chanting, they assemble a score that shows the universality between the settlers and the natives in a way that both blends and separates each culture (listen to prime example, “Savages”). It’s easy to understand why the score won the Academy Award, as well as why “Colors of the Wind” won best original song. The latter a stirring ode to tolerance and love that may have corny, straw-Native American sentiments, but still works.
John Smith’s account of his relationship with the Native American woman named Pocahontas and his almost execution at her father’s hands has been debated for centuries. It was revealed far later in his memoirs and the rumors of their romance has been debunked considering the girl’s age (she was about fourteen at the time). Of course, Hollywood has run with the story of forbidden love regardless, and has created quite a few Pocahontas/John Smith movies (Terence Malick’s The New World gets me….I’m not sorry about that). However, Disney had a burden on their hands. John Smith the bloodsucking Virginia Company, and all the other male characters are introduced within the first ten minutes of the movie. This isn’t Pocahontas’ story, but the story of Smith and crew learning to love the Indians; furthermore, this sets up the idea that John Smith is the true hero and the one the audience should identify with. Pocahontas overall dilemma is history itself and it’s hard erasing that. We all know what happened to the Native Americans, and even though this story tacks a happy ending on to events – the settlers and Natives overcome their mutual prejudices and learn to coexist. Meanwhile Pocahontas and John Smith have to separate – there’s no getting beyond the fact the Native Americans would see decades of displacement, torment, and death. Ain’t no amount of love songs and funny animals going to overcome years of degradation and oppression. The movie makes it sound as if the Virginia Company were the only reason the Natives and the settlers never co-existed, which is laughably untrue.
Also, the film wants you to believe that both sides are prejudiced when the argument is clearly one-sided. The settlers arrive under the auspices that there’s gold in Virginia. None of the white settlers understand why the Native Americans are so hostile, and even Smith tells Pocahontas that they’re there to “civilize” the Natives. The entire reason for the Natives’ anger is summed up by side character Wiggins (also voiced by David Ogden Stiers): “Because we invaded their land and cut down their trees and dug up their earth?” Unfortunately, this is used as the punchline of a joke to show how narrow-minded Ratcliffe is. The movie never appropriately explores the settlers decimation of the Natives’ land, and by the end the plot forces the Natives to be just as despicable as the settlers when their actions are justified! Settler Thomas (oddly enough voiced by New World actor Christian Bale) ends up accidentally killing Pocahontas’ betrothed – who she hates because he’s “serious” and she’s uber-independent – which, in turn, causes the tribe to kidnap Smith, believing he’s the murderer. Again, how is it we’re meant to see the Native Americans in the same light as the settlers? During the “Savages” number, there’s a line the settlers sing – “they’re different from us, which means they must be evil” – proving that because the Natives are a different race and have different beliefs, they’re automatically horrible; when the Natives sing a similar line – “they’re not like you and me, which means they can’t be trusted” – there’s a completely different set of connotations. The Natives have watched these settlers take over their land, degrade their people, and shoot at them unprovoked, so they have proof of the lack of trust
To say the love story is contrived would be an understatement. Smith and Pocahontas overcome the language barrier by “listening to their heart.” Seriously, that’s how it’s solved. For all Pocahontas‘ attempts to be serious, everything feels silly. They’re Native Americans, not magicians, and yet magic dominates their culture (and being friends with every animal in existence, of course) through characters like Grandmother Willow, various spirit animals, and the spirit of her dead mother? (That one’s not explained particularly well.) None of these magical elements do anything other than illustrate how “in-tune” Pocahontas is with nature, and the stereotypical belief that Native Americans possess some type of magic. Why can’t Pocahontas talk to her friend Nakoma (voiced by Michelle St. John) instead of a magical talking tree? The same can be said for Pocahontas’ forest friends, Flit and Meeko. The original intent was to have them talk, but the animators dropped that to keep the film “serious.” As the ’90s progressed, Disney continued to add in cuddly animal characters, probably as a blatant cash grab for plush toys. Here, almost every major character has an animal companion who play-act the intolerance playing out amongst the humans; a child-friendly means of displaying the terrible world of prejudice and padding the runtime.
The vocal cast is well done, although it’s funny listening to Mel Gibson as the voice of Smith considering how we perceive him today. Speaking of Smith, take note of his appearance. Disney’s early men were bland, brunette examples of the “tall, dark, and handsome” paradigm. With Smith and Hunchback’s Phoebus, we see a shift to blonde Adonises who dash into the fray and find themselves seducing foreign women with their persistence. It is frustrating watching the script force you to like John Smith through his continued manipulation of Pocahontas; in one scene he refuses to let her leave until she agrees with him and reveals her name!
I don’t hate Pocahontas, it’s a perfectly serviceable presentation of a story that’s become romanticized and equivocal with our interactions with Native Americans today. The songs are beautiful, and help to spread the message of tolerance. The script is just filled with problems that couldn’t really be transcended or explicated properly for a children’s film. As I mentioned in my intro, the movie’s broader themes will sail over kids’ heads and irritate adults.