Film Review: Pocahontas (1995)

In the 1990′s Walt Disney Studios owned animation. It defined a generation and produced a string of classic films unfaithful to their source material yet artistically pretty great. Affectionately titled “The Disney Renaissance” by The Walt Disney Corporation stockholders, the animation studio gave audiences the one-two-three-four punch of The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994).

However, like all great bubbles, the Disney Renaissance was inevitably destined to burst, and boy, did it ever. Little did we know that the euphoria we experienced as we discovered “A Whole New World” and the playful exuberance we reveled in with “Hakuna Matata” were about to be destroyed by an idiotic, racist film lying “just around the river-bend.” That film was 1995′s Pocahontas.

The historical inaccuracy of this film is legendary – with the audacity of the film’s screenwriters (all 26 of them) being particularly blatant in regards to the two central characters. Pocahontas is vividly transformed from her historical status of being a precocious pre-teen during the time of her encounter with John Smith, to the Western ideal of a smoking hot altruist (a striking evocation of the whole “noble savage” trope). John Smith on the other hand maintains his rugged zeal for American colonialism, but is physically transformed into an Aryan hunk. His character’s design includes a shock of blonde-bombshell hair and the not so welcomed voice work of Mel “The Passion” Gibson.

The film goes to painstaking lengths to replicate the formula which made the others films from the Renaissance resonate so strongly with audiences. The film has its obligatory love story (which goes from 0 to 60 in about five seconds), an annoying supporting cast of anthropomorphized creatures (there’s a talking tree for Christ’s sake) and a villain who can’t hold a candle to the iconic personalities of Scar, Ursula, Gaston or Jafar. However, this religious adherence to the 1990’s Disney tropes is a perfect example of how nothing good lasts forever. The supporting characters which brought a perfect balance of pathos and comedic relief to a film such as The Lion King feel superfluous and aggravating here. This can probably be attributed to the mind-numbing lack of personality which defines such forgettable characters as Meeko, Flit, Percy and Grandma Willow.

Also, the film attempts to present a protagonist who, similar to Aladdin’s desire to transcend his socio-economic status or Ariel’s need to fulfill her curiosity for life on dry land, is looking to make a fundamental change in their life. The problem here is that we have no idea what Pocahontas wants and so her story is ultimately uninvolving. All the film tells us is that apparently Pocahontas is too “spirited” to  be satisfied with a marriage to the stoic beefcake “Kocoum” and that she is looking to not choose “the smoothest course that is as steady as the beating drum.” What is the course that Pocahontas is looking for? Well, the film never really seems to make up its mind on this matter.

From an animation perspective the film has a few nice touches, especially the scene where Smith and Pocahontas confront each other at the waterfall (which reinforces this version of Pocahontas as being a total babe). However, the film still doesn’t approach the majestic power of the art seen in The Lion King, or capture the same sort of transporting effect that films like Aladdin or The Little Mermaid so seamlessly pulled off. Finally, the film’s depiction of a forest environment often times feels sort of flat. It certainly isn’t in the same league as the jungles evoked through a mixture of traditional animation and computer assistance in Disney’s far superior effort, Tarzan.

While undoubtedly conceived with good intentions, Pocahontas falls short not only due to its unremarkable script and generally bland animation, but because it depicts its Native American characters as either saintly altruists ready to sacrifice themselves for the white man (Pocahontas), or as impulsive walking stereotypes (everyone else). I guess when Roy Disney was looking to “Paint With All the Colors of the Wind” he decided to table complexity and reach for his broadest brush.

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