(POST) Preparation for Moana Review #3: Pocahontas

This was supposed to be a full series leading up to Moana‘s release in theaters but I only got around to making two. Whoops. So, let’s say these are reviews leading up to the Blu Ray release of the film (March 7). With that said..

Pocahontas Poster #2

In the early 1990’s, Disney Animation was on top of the world. With hits like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, the studio was the undisputed champion of animated movies.

Until Pocahontas came out.

While it didn’t bomb, it made less money than its predecessors (The Lion King earned almost a billion dollars when it first came out; Pocahontas only earned about $346 million) and was not warmly received by critics and audiences. (To date, it is the only Disney Renaissance film to have a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a score of about 56%.) This is particularly embarrassing as Jeffrey Katzenberg and the people behind Pocahontas were so hoping that it would get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (like Beauty and the Beast did before). Instead, while it does have its fans, it will go down as one of Disney’s less beloved works (and for some people, the film that started the downfall of Disney Animation for awhile, and for hand drawn animation period).

So what happened?

Well, I think the thing that turned a lot of people off was the general tone of the movie. Whereas the movies before were light and happy with just enough of an edge, Pocahontas is overwhelmingly serious and adult. For some, it came across as too dark, for others, too pretentious. But I think the bigger reason it didn’t do so well was because it was released in 1995. You know what OTHER major animated film came out that year…

Yeah. I think you can tell which movie parents would rather take their kids to.

That aside, Pocahontas has its own problems. I’m not going to delve deep into how historically inaccurate it is (lots of people already have), and I’ve already talked about how I generally feel about the movie before (check my Pocahontas tag) so let’s focus on other issues.

For starters, it’s important to note that this movie was directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. If you’re a Disney aficionado (or if you look them up on IMDb), you’ll notice that they’re prominent animators, not directors, writers, or story artists. Mike Gabriel had some prior experience with directing in The Rescuers Down Under, but Eric Goldberg did not. (After this film, they directed pretty much nothing else besides shorts.) As a result, the film LOOKS nice, but the story needs some work.

The character design is hit and miss. Chief Powhatan looks great: you can tell he’s a mature, strong, competent leader and a caring father. You can tell Nakoma is meant to be an Average Jane type person. Kocoum looks very strong and stern. But the main leads don’t look as great. John Smith just kind of looks boring and generic (his hair is not helping at all), and while I can’t totally hate on Pocahontas’s design, it has issues. Her nose is practically invisible when viewed on front (but it’s visible in profile), she has Barbie doll proportions, and despite being Native American, she was inspired not just by Irene Bedard (her voice actress), but by Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington, neither of whom are Native. Why? Irene Bedard is gorgeous!

The worst offender is Governor Radcliffe: he’s every negative stereotype rolled into one character. Obese? Check. Hooked nose and dark colourings? Check. Pink bow ties and effeminate mannerisms? Check. There’s a way to distinguish a character as the villain without relying on offensive stereotypes.

And while I didn’t fully realize it before, it turns out this movie really is disrespectful.

I came across a Native American blogger detailing their problems with the movie, and basically, for a film that preaches against racism, there’s a LOT of anti-Native violence depicted in the film. While it makes sense for Radcliffe to be calling the Natives savages and wanting them dead since he’s the villain (and therefore we’re not supposed to like him or agree with him), a lot of the violent language is uttered by characters we’re supposed to like. John Smith learns the error of his ways, but the others don’t. They decide not to fight because they realize the Natives aren’t interested in fighting. Their main reason for not colonizing the shit out the place is because Radcliffe shot John Smith (but not because he was ready to commit genocide). The fact that this is a revision of a very horrible true story (the real Pocahontas faced a lot of racist and sexual abuse before dying at a young age) makes it worse. You can see why I don’t like it when people snark at the movie or dismiss it as ‘heavy handed’ or ‘boring’ (though it can be slow at parts).

I think the final nail on the coffin is that Pocahontas is the only official Disney Princess that doesn’t really get a happy ending. Mulan brings honour to her family and has found a friend/love interest in Shang. Tiana opens her dream restaurant. Jasmine found true love and freedom. Pocahontas has to watch her prince leave her, maybe forever, while the threat of colonialism looms overhead. You know how I say Tiana shouldn’t be the only black princess because she was a goddamn frog for most of the movie? Well, Pocahontas shouldn’t be the only Native one either.

So, now you know the real story of Pocahontas. But maybe you still want to be able to enjoy the movie. After all, it does look nice, Colors of the Wind and Just Around the Riverbend are good songs (Judy Kuhn is an amazing singer), and it has some really epic moments. And damn, I just can’t bear to dislike Pocahontas herself. She was important to me growing up.

Maybe think that this is the story of a DIFFERENT Pocahontas and a DIFFERENT John Smith. Or maybe this is a tale showing what the world could have been like if peace, not hate, won out in the end. But don’t forget the story of the real Pocahontas, and make sure something like it never happens to Native people ever again.


Animated Movies That Should Be Stage Shows

It seems that animated musicals converted into live stage musicals is a pretty solid business. Disney on Broadway is well know for taking some of their most beloved movies and giving them the stage treatment, but that doesn’t mean other movies (Disney or not) can’t share the spotlight either.

Recently, Anastasia became a stage musical and debuted at the Hartford Stage and is eyeing a Broadway performance. The Prince of Egypt is also expected to become a stage musical as well (which would be bloody brilliant) and Frozen is arriving on Broadway in the not-to-distant future whether we like it or not. The Hunchback of Notre Dame has been made into a stage musical but I’m not sure if it’s going to reach Broadway or not. There was a Broadway musical of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the 1970s and I think it would be amazing if they revived it but I’m not sure if that will happen.

Here are some other films that I believe deserve the stage treatment.

1: The Book of Life

This movie is a pure spectacle and doesn’t nearly get the recognition it deserves. A stage musical would not only help it gain more traction, but would also be a real treat. I can totally see the audience clapping and singing along and having a lot of fun with the performance. It would also be a great way to show Mexican/Latinx talent and culture.

2: The Nightmare Before Christmas

There have been a few live performances (such as HERE and HERE) to show that one of a bigger budget and grander scale could work. It’s widely popular and the movie is one of the best animated musicals out there so it makes sense that it should head to Broadway. It might be a little hard, but they should get around it.

3: Hercules

Simply put, the Gospel music and the Greek style would be amazing on Broadway.

4: Mulan

“LET’S GET DOWN TO BUSINESS / TO DEFEAT THE HUNS!” “WE ARE MEN! / YOU MUST BE SWIFT AS THE COURSING RIVER!” That song along would be utterly awesome live. The movie doesn’t have a lot of songs so new ones will need to be added, and I wouldn’t mind that.

5: Pocahontas

Yeah this is a problematic fave but maybe a musical (which often changes the source material) will be a chance to redeem it. You can keep the beautiful music and visuals but alter it to make it more accurate/less offensive. More than anything, “Colors of the Wind” would look amazing and “If I Never Knew You” would be a powerful performance live.

There are a lot of others (such as The Jungle Book and pretty much every Disney musical) but those are the major top five I can think of, considering there are a LOT of animated musicals of varying quality that may or may not work live.

Out of curiosity (and self indulgence) I wouldn’t mind seeing stage shows of Zootopia and Big Hero 6 (musical or not). Maybe not on Broadway, but maybe at a Disney Park. That would be cute at least.

So those are some of my picks. If you have an ideas, let me know!


The Reaction to Pocahontas

If you’re a hardcore Disney fan, you probably know the story of how, in the mid-9os, the company believed that Pocahontas would be the next epic masterpiece classic in the vein of Beauty and the Beast and the like while The Lion King would be filler. Well, you know what happened. I kind of marvel the amount of effort put into a movie that was supposedly just meant to be filler, but that’s for another post.

While Pocahontas does have its fans, a lot of people consider it snark bait, or boring, or both. And of course, a lot of people lambasted the film for not being historically accurate.

As a kid, I really loved this movie (it still has a place in my heart), and I knew it was meant to be historical FICTION, not fact. I found it odd that this movie got bashed for not being entirely accurate whilst a lot of live action historical fiction films get praised and revered despite taking a lot of liberties with history.

I think the reason why this movie gets a lot of flack (along with Don Bluth’s Anastasia) for not being historically accurate is because 1) it’s for children, most of whom don’t know the REAL history, and 2) because it becomes less of a historical drama and more like a fairy tale/fantasy. I don’t think people like it when you add magic to history. Then it no longer becomes historical.

But as I grew up, I realized that the biggest reason why people get mad at the film for not being historically accurate is because of how it portrays Native Americans (in this case the Powhatan Nation) during colonial times. There’s a stereotype of First Nations people being ~~magical~~ and *~~in tune with nature~~*, which the movie unfortunately utilizes despite trying to be AGAINST racism. And of course the film glosses over the horrors of what ACTUALLY happened during the real Pocahontas’s time.

But because of that, I get a little iffy when people’s first reaction to the movie is to say “it’s boring” or “it makes me giggle because of how silly and heavy-handed it is”. Like with Anastasia, whenever people point out how inaccurate THAT movie is, they almost always do it angrily or negatively. With Pocahontas, a lot of people go ‘lol it’s so inaccurate’.

So, the movie that’s racist makes you giggle, but the movie that doesn’t accurately portray white Russian history makes you legit angry. Okay.

Now I know there are people who genuinely hate Pocahontas for it’s inaccuracies and racism (mainly, actual Native people), but still. I don’t like how a lot of reactions to this film are to make fun of it.

I guess the reason why people prefer to make fun of Pocahontas is because, as a whole, the film takes itself too seriously. I actually think that’s the main reason why the movie wasn’t as successful as Disney hoped; while The Lion King was allowed to have fun, Pocahontas tried too hard to be serious and adult and as a result came out as too grim. So people make light of it. But again, shouldn’t that inspire more anger, not snark bait? That they woefully misrepresented an entire group and have the audacity to claim that it’s a serious epic? Well, I can’t really change people’s reactions to it.

What do I think of the movie?

Well, visually, it’s stunning. I have some issues with the character design, but overall, it’s pretty gorgeous. The music is okay, but not as good as in anything Howard Ashman did. The animal sidekicks are pretty annoying and take too much screen-time. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the animals not to talk but for the tree to do so. But, the “If I Never Knew You” song (which was added in for the 1oth Anniversary Edition) is perfect. It is an emotionally powerful and beautiful song, and it makes the love between Pocahontas and John Smith feel real and genuine. (Seriously, why was the song cut from the movie? I feel like the movie could have avoided a lot of detractors if they had just kept that scene in.) And I also love Pocahontas herself.

While I do understand people who find the movie itself boring (it’s not as lively as Disney’s previous hits), I get a little offended when people dismiss Pocahontas as boring or dull. Yes, her design is pretty bad (you can read more about it HERE) and the story team used elements of the racist “Indians are so stoic” trope in her character, but even beyond that, she’s not just boring. She’s playful, she’s athletic, she cares deeply about her people, believes in the best in everyone and wants to help people look at things differently, is against violence, is against racism, war, and is pro environment, and is torn between following her passion for John Smith and her duty to her people to stay in the village and marry Kocoum. You should absolutely criticize how the writers couldn’t make her AS full of life as Ariel or Jasmine or Belle because of the stereotype of how Indians can never be fun, but don’t dismiss her as ‘dull’. There’s a lot more to her.

Granted, I could be biased. Growing up, I absolutely loved Pocahontas. I loved how free-spirited and independent she was. I wanted her hair. She was my first fave Disney Princess. And let’s be real, despite the problems with her movie, she’s still important for a lot of girls of colour (especially a lot of young native girls), and it’s a shame she doesn’t get as marketed as much.

Still, I have to ask this: if Disney wanted to make a film based on a Native American ‘legend’, why distort someone’s actual life and not, you know, adapt an actual Native American legend? There’s an ABUNDANCE of stories among First Nations people Disney could’ve adapted (with consultation from the Nation it was taking inspiration from), it’s odd that they picked something with a historical background.

Well, there’s nothing we can do about it know. The movie has been made, for better or for worse. I guess it’s a good thing it didn’t gain The Lion King level success at any rate.

I think the best thing Disney can do about Pocahontas as this rate is to make sure it ISN’T their only movie about Native Americans. I hope Moana (which is going to be set in ancient Polynesia) is successful enough to encourage Disney to make more movies about different ethnic and indigenous groups and give them the proper respect they deserve to create some beautiful films. I just hope they remember to have fun with them too.