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..
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.
HERE and HERE are posts by a Native American blogger detailing their problems with the movie, but 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.