51 Days of Disney (Day 33): Pocahontas

Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture, they thought that their first stab at historical fiction would win the highly coveted award. Oh how wrong they were.

A ship led by Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) and Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson) is set to leave England for the new world of America in search of gold and a place to help expand the British Empire. The ship is hit by a storm, and a young sailor named Thomas (Christian Bale, seriously, Batman is in Pocahontas) falls overboard, but is saved by Smith. The film then shifts to the Powhatan tribe of Native Americans where the warriors of the tribe return from a battle against an enemy tribe. Chief Powhatan tries to marry his daughter, Pocahontas, to his lead warrior, Kocoum. Powhatan finds out about the Englishmen and decrees that everyone in the village should stay away from them, but Pocahontas’ curiosity gets the better of her and she runs into Smith. The two become fast friends and teach each other about their world, but hostilities start growing between the two groups and the powder keg explodes when Kocoum is killed by Thomas. The Powhatans and English go to war and it is up to Pocahontas to stop the bloodshed.

One of the major problems with Pocahontas is the rehashing of some themes from previous Disney films and the somewhat weak story. The insistence of staying away from the other world is from the Little Mermaid, as is the fear of the relatively unknown other world. The story is also a bit of a mess. The insanely stupid plot element of the magic wind that allows John Smith and Pocahontas to be able to speak to each other is something that always brings me out of the movie for that scene. It just doesn’t make any sense, even within a movie that has a magic, talking tree. Ratcliffe doesn’t really have the motivation to be as maniacally evil, he is power hungry to a point where it almost becomes comical. I’m honestly surprised that his ultimate goal isn’t to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. There isn’t really enough motivation for the Englishmen to want to go to war with the Powhatans either, the Native Americans don’t even attack the English camp until they are provoked. The idea that Pocahontas can suddenly end the hostilities between the two groups is also rather naive.

The music is the one of the best parts of Pocahontas. The score was written by Alan Menken and the songs were done by Stephen Schwartz. Menken’s score is fantastic as usual, and got him another Academy Award for Best Original Score. The most amusing song in the film is definitely “Mine, Mine, Mine” but the best one is “Colors of the Wind” (which went on to win Best Original Song). The extended edition of the film that is found on the 10th Anniversary DVD release added a new song to the film, but the song is rather forgettable despite the surprisingly meaningfulness of the lyrics and the subtle beauty of the scene, which is really a shame. I blame Mel Gibson for this one, as his singing just isn’t very good. The montage near the end of the segment also feels very cheap, considering that new animation was actually done for the scene.

What really sets Pocahontas apart from other Disney films is the incredibly angular art style. Some connections can be drawn between the style of Pocahontas and the style of Sleeping Beauty. The style of the movie is both highly realistic and heavily stylized, which sounds like a major contradiction, but it really isn’t. The film looks fantastic with it’s varied and vibrant colors, with the “Colors of the Wind” segment looking the absolute best with it’s surprisingly minimal backgrounds, but very strong color coordination that helps cement the symbolism of the scene. The colors are honestly what I remember the most about Pocahontas. The film uses colors to represent very specific feelings in the film, blue is always used to symbolize love and red is hate, and these choices are used to great effect at the end of the film. The “Savages” segment has the best use of color in the film and really adds to the intense feelings between the tribe and the Englishmen.

Numerous animators at the studio wanted to work on Pocahontas instead of the Lion King as they thought it would be the film to win the Best Picture Oscar. Glen Keane passed over working on the Lion King in order to be the supervising animator of Pocahontas, and it really shows. Keane is a master of animation, and the movements of Pocahontas are so fluid and almost effortless that it really shows off Keane’s skills. He took what he learned from animating Ariel and took it to a whole other level. Pocahontas is an older and much more proud character than Ariel and it really shows in both her design and her animation. She moves in a much more mature manner than Ariel and holds herself very differently.

One little item of note, Pocahontas had the largest outdoor premier of a movie in history. The premier was held in Central Park and featured 4 8-story high screens built for the event.

Pocahontas is a beautiful and incredibly well designed film with fantastic music, but the mediocre story makes it into a merely passable entry of the Disney canon and it the weakest film in the Disney Renaissance.

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