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Disney 53: Pocahontas

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Directors: Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
1995/ 81 Minutes
Est. budget: $55 million
Box Office: $346.1 million

Whilst half the staff of Disney was working on a little-known Hamlet adaptation, THE LION KING, the other were working on effectively a version of Romeo and Juliet called POCAHONTAS.

It was regarded as being one the hardest films produced by the studio, due to its rich colour schemes, angular shapes and facial expressions, and was in production for a full five years. It paid off, however, and is regarded as one of the studio’s finest works.

It was the first Disney animated feature to be based on a real historical character, as well as established known history and folklore of the Native Americans of the era, and focuses on her relationship with the (real) English explorer/soldier/author, John Smith. It’s difficult to discern exactly how faithful an adaptation the film is (putting aside whole talking tree issue) given the patchwork nature of history of the time, but seeing as this is a Disney movie, we’re not exactly expecting top marks for accuracy, are we?

It’s also notable for having no talking animal characters, somewhat of a rarity in a Disney movie. Originally there were to be talking animals, including a turkey voiced by John Candy, who had lent his voice to Wilbur in THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER, but when Candy passed away from a heart attack, the character was shelved.

CONTROVERSY
Despite Disney’s best efforts, hiring Native American actors and consultants for accuracy, the film was condemned by several prominent Native American activists for its historical inaccuracy and stereotyping of the Indian people. However, cast member Russell Means, himself an activist, went on to call the film “the single best representation of American Indians that Hollywood has ever done”.

SYNOPSIS:  Not a million miles away from Romeo and Juliet; spirited Powhatan ‘Princess’ Pocahontas learns that she may be wed to Kocoum, the tribe’s greatest hero with the personality of a rock. Seeking guidance with Grandmother Willow (the talking tree I mentioned earlier), Pocahontas observes the arrival of the Susan Constant, a British sailing ship carrying settlers of the Virginia Company.

Among the crew is famed Captain John Smith, something of a hero among the crew, especially after saving the life of young Thomas, thrown overboard during a violent storm. Whilst Smith reconnoiters the surrounding area, the voyage’s leader, Governor Ratcliffe orders the crew to start felling trees to build a fort and mining for gold.

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Smith and Pocahontas inevitably meet, and are quickly (with the help of some spiritual magic) able to understand one another. As the two start to learn about each other and their separate worlds, their bond grows into a full-blown romance. In the meantime, Pocahontas’ father, Chief Powhatan, has ordered his tribe to stay away from the invading English, while Ratcliffe issues orders to shoot any “savage” on sight, still frantically searching for gold with which to boost his status back home. Unfortunately for Ratcliffe, the only gold around is the golden corn regularly harvested by the Powhatan.

When Pocahontas and Smith venture from their respective camps, each is witnessed and followed. When Kocoum witnesses Pocahontas kissing Smith, he attacks in a rage; Smith is saved by Thomas, who shoots Kocoum dead. Smith allows himself to be taken by the Powhatan while Thomas escapes. Chief Powhatan declares war on the invaders, and Smith is to be executed at sunrise.

Thomas returns to camp with news of Smith’s capture. Ratcliffe- convinced the Powhatan have the gold he’s searching for- rallies his troops to battle, intending to wipe out the “Savages” and take their nonexistent gold for himself.

A guilt-ridden Pocahontas finds solace with Grandmother Willow. After some soul-searching, and a little help from the Token Animal Sidekick, Meeko, Pocahontas realises her true path, and rushes to save Smith, arriving just in time to stop Powhatan from executing the invader. Pocahontas’ actions convince both sides to down their weapons and cease hostility, but Ratcliffe snatches a rifle and attempts to shoot Powhatan. Smith throws himself at Powhatan, catching the bullet and saving his life.

With the Governor arrested by his own crew, Smith is forced to return home for medical treatment. Both Powhatan and Pocahontas look forward to their return…

Lessons Learned:

1. Opening your eyes to someone else’s point of view opens the doors to new possibilities.

2. One man’s treasure is another man’s trash.

3. Don’t trust the English aristocracy.

THE HEROINE
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Pocahontas, voiced by Irene Bedard, a Native American actress who also provided her character model. Part of the “second generation” of Disney Princesses, Pocahontas is a free-spirited and strong-willed individual, a spiritualist with wisdom beyond her years. One of the oldest Disney Princess (some sources put her down as 20 years old), she is strong enough to challenge the orders and conceptions of her father and her family. Her portrayal as a “noble save” may not be in keeping with the facts of Matoaka/Pocahontas/Rebecca Rolfe’s life, but is an important element in the story’s success.
Broadway star Judy Kuhn provided her singing voice.

THE HERO
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Mel Gibson (yes, really!) voices John Smith, English settler and hero. It’s implied in dialogue that Smith has already travelled to many “new worlds” and has killed a fair amount of “savages” in the name of king and country. But as he learns more of Virginia, he ends up putting aside his prejudice and embracing Pocahontas’ culture. At the same time, he puts his foot in it by telling her how his people have “improved the lives of savages the world over”, which rightly insults Pocahontas.
For his faults, he is a brave and noble man of action, with no qualms against throwing himself into danger to save the life of another man, something he does twice in the film.
Surprisingly, Gibson does his own singing in the film, one of the first to showcase his singing ability.

THE VILLAINS?
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Governor John Ratcliffe, voiced by David Ogden Stiers, is a rarity of a Disney villain in that he actually survives the movie. He’s also quite rare in that he’s not an egotistical maniac with delusions of grandeur, but rather a man with a poor view of himself, desperate to earn (or steal) the wealth that will make a name for himself in court. Despite his almost sympathetic behind-the-scenes backstory, Ratcliffe is enough of a personality to hold power over his crew, threatening with execution for disobeying his orders.

Similar to Judge Frollo, Ratcliffe is also of the opinion that he is a good man, and that his actions are for the good of the kingdom, and refuses to see any fault in himself. He’s also a screaming xenophobe unable to even consider the Native Virginians as equals, or even human.

HIS FATE: Rarely for a mainstream Disney villain, Ratcliffe is alive and well in the sequel, JOURNEY TO THE NEW WORLD. After another run-in with Smith, Pocahontas, and her new beau John Rolfe, Ratcliffe is arrested on order of King James, and is never seen again.

Now, the tricky bit; does Chief Powhatan (voiced by Russell Means) qualify as a villain? He’s shown to be antagonistic towards Smith and the other settlers, up to the point of executing Smith in retaliation for the death of Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall). However, this could be seen as the actions of a man whose home and tribe are threatened by invaders, and after the death of one of his own, he sees no option than to fight back…

SIDEKICKS AND HENCHMEN
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Both Pocahontas and Smith travel with characters that could qualify as sidekicks. Pocahontas’ are of the Cute, Not-Talking Animal variety; There’s Meeko, a cheeky, always hungry raccoon (referred to as a “bottomless pit” by Smith) and there’s Flit, a hummingbird who seems to be considerably smarter and more opinionated. Flit seems to care more of Pocahontas’ welfare, and seems happy with the prospect of her marrying Kocoum; perhaps he represents Pocahontas’ subconscious wish to conform, to follow the path set by her father and accept the established order.

Meeko by comparison is by far the more adventurous, venturing even where Pocahontas fears to tread, possibly representing the young woman’s free spirit and thirst for adventure and “the new”.

Smith on the other hand is accompanied by Thomas, voiced by Christian Bale (yes, really!)- a youngster who’s yet to find something he’s good at, be it as a sailor or a soldier, but his heart is in the right place; and by Ben and Lon, a double-act representing the general feeling of the crew. Billy Connolly voices Ben while Joe Baker voices Lon, though they’re pretty interchangeable.  They’re shown to be family men and veteran sailors who have quite a history together, and with Smith.
Each of them have a part to play, and each has their moment to shine, even if for Thomas it’s a rather infamous moment…

On the other hand Ratcliffe’s manservant Wiggins, (both were voiced by Stiers) is not so much a henchman and party to Ratcliffe’s schemes than he is a neutral party just trying to do his job and do it well. He comes across as clueless and socially awkward, but he does have moments of brilliance, and is certainly talented, at the least with topiary. His main duties seem to revolve around Percy, Ratcliffe’s spoiled pet pug, who seems to live in even greater luxury than Ratcliffe himself;

Percy has his own subplot with Meeko, and serves to highlight the story in microcosm; while they start off as enemies in a Tom-and-Jerry kind of way, the events of the film bring them together as friends. Percy even remains in Virginia with Pocahontas after the crew departs.

PLOT
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The main “boy meets girl, boy’s family try to kill girl’s family, girl helps everyone get along” plotline is pretty simple, but it’s boosted by its background characters and their own stories; each side has characters we’re invited to care about, and it pretty evenly split between the two. While both sides feel fear and curiosity, their actions and misconceptions lead them both to the brink of war.

Plotwise, it really does tread the same basic path as Romeo and Juliet, with Kocoum taking the role of both Tybalt and a shade of Mercutio, but he’s the only one shown to die on screen.

MUSIC AND SONGS
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Composed by Alan Menkin, the score is effective, but not particularly memorable; For me, only a few songs really stand out, the most obvious being Colours of the Wind, sung by Pocahontas to highlight the couple’s beginning to see the world through each other’s eyes and gain a new perspective of the world. It’s coupled by some brilliant visuals, and went on to win an Academy, Golden Globe and Grammy awards.
Aside from that, the biggest number is the full-cast chorus number “Savages”, where Ratcliffe and Powhatan rally their respective forces, each side believing the other to be ruthless, brutal savages. It’s reprise, joined by Pocahontas, is effctive in highlighting the growing urgency, as Pocahontas sprints to save Smith’s life, and by doing so the lives of everyone.

LAUGHS
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Pretty average levels of comedy, mostly reserved for background characters, notably the Tom-and-Jerry antics of Meeko and Percy. Ben and Lon get some good material, and there’s a lot of background humour from Wiggins, mostly to lighten the rather sombre tone set by Ratcliffe.

A notable mention to Grandmother Willow. Voiced by Linda Hunt and Pocahontas’ spiritual “mother figure”, Willow gets a lot of good lines and a couple of really good gags, as well as providing a kind of deus-ex-machina for the main plot.

INTERESTING INTERLUDE: Originally, the character of Grandmother Willow was written as a male character, the spirit of the river. The song “Just Around The Riverbend” was written for said character, and veteran actor Gregory Peck was offered the role of “Old Man River”. He, however- and it pained him to do so- turned it down because he felt a maternal presence would suit the film, and its protagonist better. Disney eventually agreed and the character was amended.

SCARES
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No real scares but a lot of thrills, mostly of the “is he/are they going to shoot?” variety. There’s an awful lot of lurking in bushes observing other characters, which leads to a lot of the violence in the film, but the only character with any real menace is Ratcliffe, who often dominates any scene just by his sheer size, as well as his general attitude towards both his men and the Powhatan.

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MORAL/EDUCATIONAL CONTENT
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Like many Disney films before it, POCAHONTAS preaches that when love is true, even between different races or even species, it can overcome any obstacle. It shows the Powhatan as a noble, proud and civilised people, at one with nature and willing to defend their lands from any transgressors, while it shows the English settlers as, well…

As a Brit, I don’t really like being reminded of how throughout history, Europeans- and notably the British- have travelled the world and brought “less advanced” peoples under their rule, their religion, their way of thinking. For me, POCAHONTAS is in part a reminder of the bad side of my nation’s history, a side that exists to this day.

The film’s message of cultural differences, and the right for each to exist in its own right, while not always obvious, is a strong element of the story.

LEGACY
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POCAHONTAS II: JOURNEY TO A NEW WORLD focusses on a later part of her life, picking up several years later as she travels to England to represent her people in talks with the King. While John Smith-presumed dead- does return, Pocahontas finds love with John Rolfe, the man whom she married in real life. It plays pretty fast and loose with history, and wasn’t as well received as its predecessor.

Pocahontas herself has a cameo of sorts in ALADDIN AND THE KING OF THIEVES and several episodes of HOUSE OF MOUSE, and is a long-standing member of the Disney Princess franchise. She and most of the other Princess received a revamp of sorts late 2012, with her costume being “bling’d up” as it were to better show her as a “Princess”.

A little known “remake” of the film, given a science-fiction makeover and directed by James Cameron, went by the title AVATAR and was some commercial success.

FINAL SCORE: 36/53

NEXT TIME: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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