Disney’s Attempt at History
Originally Released: 1995
Pocahontas was going to be a home run. It was a guaranteed smash success. People wouldn’t be able to resist the story based on real people in American history. This was the feeling going around the studios when the movie was being pitched. Disney also had many beautiful pieces of art at the meeting which was set up for the filmmakers to choose between working on Pocahontas and The Lion King. Most of the top personnel was sold on this idea and chose to work on Pocahontas.
It is interesting to see in hindsight the difference between The Lion King and Pocahontas. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things to like about Pocahontas, but in a way it has a bit of a forced feel to it, as if the filmmakers were trying too hard to make this the next Beauty and the Beast. In contrast, nobody expected The Lion King to end up as good as it did (that’s a story with a good moral in it all by itself).
On the positive side, Pocahontas boasts a beautiful art style and great animation. I enjoyed the color palette with its greens, blues and purples. It felt different and was an interesting choice. Animator Glen Keane (who animated Ariel, the golden eagle, and Beast) did another superb job in this film with his animation of lead character Pocahontas. Others did a great job as well.
Disney once again collaborated with Alan Menken for the music, and once again he created an excellent score. His work here would win him another two academy awards for best musical score (which was his 4th win for musical score in as many films while at Disney) and for best song in “Colors of the Wind”. For the songs, Menken teamed up with lyricist/composer Stephen Schwartz (of Wicked fame). They were an effective duo. The good songs in Pocahontas are REALLY good. In fact, I think “Colors of the Wind” is so beautifully sung and orchestrated in the movie that I question why it was even necessary to get a pop version for the ending credits. I prefer the Julie Kuhn version much more than Vanessa Williams’ rendition. But although most songs are amazing, there is also a stinker or two in the lot. As a whole, though, I really enjoy the sounds of Pocahontas.
There are also some things I don’t like too much about the movie. Despite being based on history, in true Disney fashion the filmmakers strayed far from the source material in order to tell the story they wanted. If it is a history lesson they wanted to combine into the entertainment, they failed miserably at doing so (though this is not a big deal if this is understood upfront by the viewer). Pocahontas also suffers from a bad case of political correctness. That’s about all I’ll say on that front, though.
Pocahontas is also the first film in the Disney renaissance that starts to feel a little formulaic with its structure and characters. For example, in Aladdin, Abu felt like he was actually a contributing character. But in Pocahontas, the animal characters Meeko, Flit, and Percy feel like nothing more than obligatory cuddly comic relief whose sole existence is to keep the children entertained. It seems that Disney’s search to find the secrets to its earlier successes led them to some conclusions. However, some of the elements in Pocahontas would suggest that perhaps they were barking up the wrong (willow?) tree in this search.
In the end, Disney may not have been able to make history with this film about true history, but I think the positives outweigh the negatives, and I can sit and enjoy Pocahontas despite its flaws. That being said, I’m not against parody and teasing Disney’s films. To finish this post, have a look at three great Youtube videos that all use stuff from the film (I discovered these on the Facebook page of my friends from “Rediscovering the Magic with Rick and Friends.” I’d recommend anyone who wants a Disney-themed laugh to check it out). The videos can be found here, here and here.