Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 17, 2012)
Although it raked in a healthy $141 million at the box office during the summer of 1995, Pocahontas was regarded as a minor failure for Disney animation. This stemmed entirely from the astonishing success of in 1994. That hit grossed an amazing $312 million and raised the bar for what would henceforth be considered "successful" for Disney.
$141 million may sound pretty good, but it represented less than half of the take of King and started the gradual slide in revenue the studio wouldn't start to reverse until Mulan and A Bug's Life in 1998.
Back when Pocahontas arrived on screens, I was a mild Disney animation fan. I owned and on laserdisc and would soon add King, but that was about it. I didn't have any interest in pre-1990s Disney animation, and any upcoming movies were taken on a case-by-case basis. As such, although I now rush to see new Disney animated films, that wasn't the case in 1995.
I only saw Pocahontas theatrically because of one day during which I literally had nothing better to do. I'd taken my car to have massive amounts of stereo equipment installed, and because the store was far from home, I chose to walk across the street to a movie theater. I'd already seen much of what they offered, so I went for the two titles I'd not yet viewed: Apollo 13 and Pocahontas.
Apollo was one I actually wanted to see, whereas Pocahontas came more as a default; that happens sometimes, when you have time and want to see a movie but there's nothing special so you take in something that doesn't really interest you. In the case of Pocahontas, my hesitation stemmed less from a lack of desire and more from an actual aversion, as my first preview of the film did not make it look pretty.
Back in the fall of 1994 Disney released a Pocahontas trailer that consisted solely of the "Colors of the Wind" scene in its entirety. This wasn't the first or last time Disney used this form of advertisement - Lion King offered a similar trailer - but at least for me, it backfired in regard to Pocahontas. Removed from the context of the film, "Wind" came across as insanely "politically correct", preachy and condescending, and it immediately gave me a negative impression of the movie.
Admittedly, "Wind" still seems overly patronizing even as part of the film, but its isolation in a trailer even more strongly emphasized the "white people are bad" overtones. The song makes a lot more sense and is much more tolerable - and enjoyable, even - within the body of the movie.
None of that really mattered when I saw Pocahontas theatrically. I recall finding it to be a decent little film but not terribly stimulating, and I had no desire to add it to my LD collection. Actually, my batch of Disney LDs remained fairly small. Over the three years that followed Pocahontas's theatrical premiere, I picked up boxed sets of Toy Story and 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame but passed on all the other releases.
I maintained that status until November 1998. At that time the LD was in steep decline and some great prices could be found on previously-pricey material. I saw that one store was selling the boxed set of
Pocahontas - which originally went for $100 - for only $30. At that price, I figured I should give the movie another shot, especially since my opinion of Disney animation had recently started to pick up again after that prior summer's Mulan. (I'd also really liked Hunchback but initially found 1997's Hercules to be a big disappointment.)
Ironically, that decision to buy the bargain box of Pocahontas indirectly sparked my own soon-to-be-heavy interest in the history of Disney animation. I delighted in the terrific supplements in that set and decided it was time to branch out to some older Disney films. After all, with the acquisition of Pocahontas I already owned all of the modern-day Disney animation in deluxe boxed sets, but there were a bunch of older movies I had yet to peruse. During late 1998 and early 1999, I developed an intense interest in Disney animation and quickly snapped up slew of LDs.
As such, I owe a debt to Pocahontas since I'm really happy that I've become a bigger Disney fan; I'm actually mad at myself for not pursuing the classic films much earlier, but I had bizarrely convinced myself that I only liked the new stuff. That opinion changed once I started to watch the classics.
I've developed a greater affection for Pocahontas, and not just because it kick-started my fascination with Disney animation. Now that I can better distance myself from my disdain for the film's heavy-handed message, I find it to offer an above-average Disney experience. It doesn't stand up to the studio's best efforts, but it remains a solid effort that stands up well to repeated viewings.
Pocahontas may well be Disney's most dramatic feature. Hunchback comes close, but it relies too heavily on comic relief, most unfortunately near the film's climax when - in an incongruous and disruptive move - the story leaves the action to provide a goofy musical number starring the gargoyles, the darkness quickly dissipates. Which is too bad, as much of the rest of Hunchback truly takes Disney to a satisfyingly dark place that the studio had largely been unwilling to visit prior to 1996.
Pocahontas lacks the depth of the experience provided by Hunchback, but it remains more consistently serious and "heavy." Yes, it includes the traditional sidekicks who exist for comic relief, but they're less of an intrusion than the gargoyles. In fact, I think they blend well with the action.
Most of the humor comes from Pocahontas's animal friends Meeko the badger and Flit the hummingbird. We also get a few laughs from two of malevolent Governor Ratcliffe's companions: his manservant Wiggins and his pampered pooch Percy. I don't find the comedy that revolves around these characters to appear forced or intrusive, and it should be noted that when the action becomes serious, there are no comedic pauses to lighten the tone; the filmmakers essentially follow through on what they promise.
Virtually every Disney animated title receives criticism from some groups and Pocahontas took a greater beating than most. This occurred due to the film's rather loose retelling of history. Pocahontas differs from prior Disney cartoons in that it doesn't adapt characters from a fictional source and it utilized actual historical figures. (Although I believe Sleeping Beauty was based upon some really lazy chick Walt once knew.)
Disney takes their lumps for altering the storylines of the fictional works they adapt, but those beatings don't compare to the assault that accompanied the release of Pocahontas. It probably didn't help that they took a person who was in reality a fairly young girl at the time of the events related in the film and made her into a rather idealized – and built - woman. Make no mistake - this movie's Pocahontas is quite a babe! Even when she reached adulthood, the actual Pocahontas was nothing to look at, so many protested over Disney's "sexist" treatment of the character.
This ruckus ignores a few issues. For one, John Smith looked nothing like the figure we see depicted here. Also, if the movie created characters who resembled their historical forebears in age and appearance, we'd have a pretty sick story, since a grown man would be smitten by a very underaged girl; they'd have to call it Lolitahontas.
I'm fine with all of the alterations Disney made. Do I encourage films to depict factually inaccurate material? Nope. However, one has to consider the form that the product takes. Some movies purport to be historically accurate and realistic; Pocahontas is not one of those pictures. At no point did Disney claim this would be a biography or anything other than a fantasy loosely based on some historical material. The film takes from the legend of Pocahontas; as such, criticisms of its lack of factual accuracy are misplaced.
Personally, I think the folks who criticize the alterations in Disney films miss another point. I believe that these movies create interest in the subjects that otherwise wouldn't exist. How many kids decided to read Tarzan because of the film, or learn more about Greek mythology due to Hercules? A lot? Maybe not, but enough to make the endeavors
No, I don't claim that Disney creates these films in the hopes that they'll spur additional study by youngsters; they exist to earn money. Nonetheless, I think it's a positive byproduct and it shouldn't be discounted. I'm certain that most kids see the movies, dig them and then move on, but I'm also sure that a fair amount of children discover material that otherwise might have remained unknown to them. It's all about broadening horizons, and while it's true that "the Disney version" of a story tends to become the last word to the general public, Disney releases also create awareness that the material would not otherwise obtain. Whine about Pocahontas's rack all you want; the final result still gets the job done.
Personally, I rather like Pocahontas's rack, but I think the movie works for reasons other than the hormonal. One positive aspect of the film that gets lost in the criticism stems from the nature of her character. For many years, Disney heroines remained fairly passive figures such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Briar Rose. Ariel and Belle displayed more spunk, but neither really took charge of events.
The same cannot be said for Pocahontas, as she's tough, brave, smart and caring. The first time she meets John Smith, he holds a rifle on her; she reacts by simply standing up and staring at him. Whether through defiance or ignorance - logically, she wouldn't know what that weapon was, though I'd expect she would glean a negative intent from Smith's posture - she's nobody's victim and won't be bullied or intimidated.
Pocahontas is a romance, but it avoids the "Someday My Prince Will Come" trappings of many other Disney films in which the women are clearly viewed as incomplete if they lack mates. In fact - possible spoiler ahead! - Pocahontas stands as one of the rare Disney films in which the boy and the girl end up apart. In fact, I think it's the only Disney romance that ends in such a manner. Yeah, Quasimodo remains single at the conclusion of Hunchback, but Esmerelda and Phoebus get matched, and at least Quasi’'s made some new friends and gotten out of that filthy tower.
Pocahontas, on the other hand, features a relatively downcast ending. I won't call it "sad", but it does seem bittersweet. Part of me dislikes the fact that Pocahontas and Smith end up separated at the conclusion of the story, because for all of the film's preaching about racial harmony, it seems bothersome that the only romantic couple in Disney history who don't walk off into the sunset together would also be Disney's first interracial couple. Was that a consideration? I doubt it, but I must admit it makes an otherwise satisfying conclusion more disappointing. However, the ending seems in keeping with the tone and the spirit of the movie, so I won't complain too much.
By the way, if my preceding comments make it appear that I'm an enthusiastic supporter of
Pocahontas, that's not the case. I still dislike the generally preachy tone of the movie, plus many of the characterizations seem stiff and bland. Irene Bedard's Pocahontas stands out so far above the rest that everyone else suffers in comparison. Mel Gibson's Smith never rises above generic action-hero fluff, though I won't fully - or even mostly – blame Gibson for that. While I understand the filmmakers' reluctance to draw a Smith who looked like a real-life troll, his UCLA frat boy appearance here makes him look like a dude more at home on a surfboard than in a new land.
Ratcliffe seems to be a decent villain, though he's underdrawn and flat, and I strongly disagree with the decision to cast David Ogden Stiers as both Ratcliffe and his lackey Wiggins. Stiers gives satisfactory performances in both roles - though he stands out in neither, unlike his strong turn as Cogsworth in Beast - but it seems obvious that the same guy does both voices. This lends the proceedings a quality of cheapness that I found hard to shake, as though the producers were too stingy to pay for two actors.
Also, since literally all of Wiggins' scenes come along with Ratcliffe - though not vice versa - I got the uncomfortable impression of a man talking to himself. This sort of double-casting can work for uncommonly talented voice artist - such as Mel Blanc - or if both roles are minor or at least don't interact. None of those qualifications exist here, so I find the dual performance by Stiers to detract from an otherwise strong film.
Ultimately, that's how I would classify Pocahontas. It's not the best Disney has to offer, but it presents some definite strengths and it creates an appealing sense of drama and seriousness lacking from many of their other movies. I may not have cared for the film initially, but my tune has changed since 1995, and I now find it to be a solid and compelling effort.