Original Release: June 23, 1995
Runtime: 81 Minutes
Directed By: Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
Notable Actors: Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson, Christian Bale, David Ogden Stiers and John Kassir
Have YOU ever asked the grinning bobcat why he grins? Don’t lie. You totally have. Before we kick off today’s little Vault Disney article, I want to make a bit of a disclaimer. Throughout this project I’ve been graced with films which had absolutely no historical information to be read, while others had a plethora of fun facts and stories. Of course, there are plenty of films in between these two extremes. I say this because Pocahontas may have the most overwhelming amount of historical info, opinions, production stories and controversies so far. To tell all of them would simply be too long an article. SO, in the spirit of Vault Disney, I will recount to you what I found to be some of the highlights and tell you that if this is your favorite film or if you just want to know more, please PLEASE go read the enormous amount of info on it. I happen to love research and the history of these films, and if you’re like me, you owe it to yourself to get a bigger picture than I am about to present. Alright, legalities out of the way. Let’s get around that river bend.
There’s a recurring theme that permeates the stories you find when you research Pocahontas: The film is NOT historically accurate. I’ll get into my thoughts on this in a bit, but for now, let’s start with a brief history of the actual person, as I think it adds a bit of context. Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, a paramount chief of several nations in the Tsenacommacah, was born in 1595. Upon his return to London, Englishman John Smith described his capture by the Native Americans and how he was almost killed by the chief, but was saved by his daughter when she put her head onto Smith’s just as her father was to bring a war club down on him. This all happened in 1607. Whether or not it happened at all is subject to criticism as in John Smith’s initial telling of his capture, Pocahontas was nowhere to be found. Many believed he added her to the story to make it a more harrowing adventure. Also, take note of the fact that Pocahontas was about 12 years old at the time.
In 1613, Pocahontas was captured by the English during several battles between the Englishmen and the Native Americans and was held for ransom. During this time, she converted to Christianity and married John Rolfe, a man noted for starting the Tobacco crop business in America. She changed her name to Rebecca and chose to remain with the English. She was taken back to London where she was showcased as the “civilized savage.” She never made it back to America as she passed away while still in the United Kingdom.
I think you can already see where one might say the film misses the mark on history. But let’s take a look at some production. Before Pocahontas was even on the table, Mike Gabriel and character designer Joe Grant wanted to work together. This lead them to the animated adaptation of Swan Lake. They put together and submitted an outline, only to have it returned and called “worthless nothing.” Ouch. During a fateful Thanksgiving Weekend in 1990, they started conceptualizing American tall tales as possible stories, when they landed on the idea of Pocahontas. They pitched the idea of an Indian princess torn between her family and the man she loves. The pitch was accepted and became the fastest turnaround in Studio history.
Jeffery Katzenberg got involved, hoping to make another best picture nomination after the huge success of Beauty and the Beast. Aladdin and The Lion King were already far into development so he jumped on Pocahontas. He pushed for the film to be more of a serious love story, less silly like Aladdin and the animals, which at the time were all fully voiced, were changed to mute characters. Because of this, a turkey character named Redfeather was dropped entirely on account of not really being able to gesture with his wings. Katzenberg also sent the filmmakers to the Jamestown settlement where they met Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow-McGowan, a descendant of the Powhatan Indians. She served as a consultant but upon finding out how the film would be portraying Native Americans and how it was changing history, she pulled away from the project, regretting her decision to get involved. Katzenberg held a meeting with the feature animation staff, telling him that Pocahontas would be a hit, while Lion King was too experimental. Because of this, many animators chose to work on Pocahontas instead of Lion King. I’ve said this before, and it just keeps getting reinforced. I don’t like Jeffery Katzenberg.
Throughout the course of production you find characters that were changed to be more cheesy or corny like Grandmother Willow. You find Katzenberg striving for Pocahontas to be beautiful and slim. “The most idealized and finest woman ever made,” he calls her. He even gets the animator that did Ariel to draw her. At one point, he sees a picture of the real Pocahontas and remarks, “not exactly a candidate for People’s Most Beautiful Issue.” To counter this, he goes on to say that he added Asian features to make her more beautiful. It’s amazing that so much of the design of this strong female character centers around her being pretty enough for this guy’s tastes. It’s all a bit unsettling. Not to mention that Governor Ratcliffe didn’t discover Jamestown and was also killed by Indians. Yikes.
The history of the film goes on and on like this. One person says something awful. Someone leaves to work on Lion King. Someone comes over from Lion King only to go back. Story creators pitch ideas and no one listens. The script gets rewritten no less than 35 times. In researching this film, I keep getting this overwhelming sense that everyone was so afraid to be politically correct that they lose sight of the creativity and the magic they are trying to bring to the screen. The story is bogged down in not wanting turkey’s because it might be offensive but then turning around and writing a song called “Savages.” It’s just a mess of information, to be sure. But take that all away, and what is this film really?
Pocahontas is a gorgeous film. The animation is sharp. The world is beautiful and quite honestly, the story being told is quite important. After all, we still live in a world where plenty of people hate each other just for being different. At the core of this story are Pocahontas and John finding each other and putting down their weapons long enough to learn from each other. That’s pretty spectacular. And more importantly, I like their characters. I like that Pocahontas is different and likes to go on adventures. I like that John is daring and charming. I want to see them be happy in the end and when they are apart in the end, it’s heartbreaking because it sends this message that yes, maybe they just are too different to be together. And despite all of Katzenberg’s gross sexism in her creation, Pocahontas herself does seem like a very good role model for young girls. She’s strong and independent and really uses her mind before her fists.
I’ll also note that I really like the side characters here. Meeko is so friggin’ cute and watching his relationship with Percy the Pug is very fun. It has this air of Tom and Jerry about it but by the end they learn to accept each other. It’s sort of like a mini story within the story. Flit is equally funny and Grandmother Willow, while never really adding any comedic support, acts as a pretty persistent plot device that never feels overly forced.
Then there’s Ratcliffe, our villain. I really love the song, “Mine” as it just has so many meanings. I like the idea of Ratcliffe for one scene in particular. The first time he sees the Indians, he orders his men to shoot, but throughout the rest of the film insists that they shot first. This is so powerful. It represents so many issues with society. The idea that you can convince people of anything if they are scared enough. He bases every point and decision he makes on the fact that they shot first, which simply isn’t true and this plays very well on the idea of misunderstanding which leads to fighting. As a side note, Ratcliffe was a real person but had nothing to do with any of this Pocahontas business. He was merely chosen as the writers liked the sinister sound of his name.
Sadly, Pocahontas never feels quite as fun or exhilarating as The Lion King or Aladdin. It gets a little lost in itself. It’s trying so hard to make a grand point while not being offensive that it sort of misses the part about being fun. The music is sweeping and the animation is perfect, but somehow the story just feels a bit mundane after Agrabah and the Pride Lands. It’s been a while since I’ve checked my watch to see how much longer we’ve got left, but I’ll admit, it happened here. It’s not a bad movie by any means. But it also falls too short to be great.
I’ve said before that I’m not overly bothered by changing a story from the source material, but when the source is actual history, you’re going to run into snags. I can imagine a parent being upset over having their kids see a movie based in history, which actually has nothing to do with the real history. Native Americans become upset as it brushes over the horrible things that happened at the time. I’d say, of course it brushes over them, it’s a kids’ movie! There are so many catch 22’s and places where there is no right answer and while I commend Disney for having the guts to do something with this much weight around it, I also have to wonder how on Earth someone in the writing room didn’t turn around at some point and say, “Hey guys, this Savages song is probably not gonna jive with a lot of people.” I don’t find the film overtly racist but the problem with a film like this is that it doesn’t really have to try for at least some people to immediately peg it as such.
I’ll be honest, Pocahontas is the most work I’ve ever had to put into an article in this series. The arguments for characters and against them go back and forth and there’s so much to take in. Unfortunately this translates into the film as a superbly polished gem that fails to take any risks or have as much fun as it should. While financially successful, the film was hit hard by critics. If nothing else, Pocahontas has given me a lot to chew on and a whole bunch of things to think about. At its core, Pocahontas is a tale of loving each other despite our differences and for that alone, I’m glad to have seen it.
Next Up: The Hunchback of Notre Dame
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head overHERE and check it out!