'Pocahontas' Was Supposed To Be A Disney Crown Jewel – Here's How It Failed

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today's column, he discusses the 1995 film Pocahontas.)

A perfect storm combined to create a film that now serves as an awkward midpoint in the history of Walt Disney Feature Animation's representation of non-White characters. In the run-up to the release of Pocahontas, expectations were high, so high that it was all but impossible for any film to meet them. The years prior to Pocahontas' release in the summer of 1995 led to Disney's most successful run of animated films in decades. In 1991, they received their first Best Picture Oscar nomination. In 1992, they released the highest-grossing film of the year. In 1994, they released a phenomenon to top all others, a film that few internally had expected to do well at all.

No one could have realized in the moment that The Lion King was not just the chronological midpoint of the Disney Renaissance, but also its peak. There were five years left in this Silver Age of Animation for one of the most influential studios in the world, but Pocahontas was the beginning of a mild downturn, not a continuation of impossibly high ambitions.

The Sound of Distant Drumming

It's more accurate to say that Pocahontas was not a successful continuation of impossibly high ambitions. Whatever else is true, the star-crossed romance represents a daring attempt at pushing Disney storytelling forward. Many of the basic elements of a Disney animated film are on display in Pocahontas: there is a winsome female lead who desires more than her current life can offer her, a pair of comic-relief animal pals who help her out, anthropomorphized inanimate objects that speak, Broadway-style songs, and a (literal) mustache-twirling villain who wants to get in the way of our heroine's happiness for his own personal gain.

But Pocahontas is also an animated retelling of how English settlers first arrived in the New World that eventually became the United States of America. And this retelling of a foundational part of American history was directly inspired by nothing less than William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. More to the point, as the title suggested, the film was squarely positioned as the story of a young Native American woman, one of a few cases in the Disney Renaissance of the studio's animators tackling stories deliberately about non-White characters and culture. 

The minefield was thick for Pocahontas, too, because this was not the first time a Disney animated feature featured Native American characters. The most obvious example, of course, is the 1953 feature Peter Pan. That adaptation of J.M. Barrie's story of the boy who wouldn't grow up features, as a subplot, Peter and Wendy Darling spending time with Princess Tiger Lily, a young girl of what's clearly meant to be Native American heritage (even if she lives in the fantastical world of Never Land) and the rest of her tribe. As visualized in the Disney film, these characters are an extreme case of stereotyping; Tiger Lily doesn't speak, and her father literally offers the White characters a peace pipe, while also holding his hand up and deeply intoning "How". 

The Drums of War

Thus, to say that there was both room for growth as well as ways in which Disney could backslide even in a slightly more enlightened period is a dual understatement. But when the film was first pitched at one of the Animation department's fabled Gong Shows by eventual co-director Mike Gabriel (fresh off being one of the co-directors of The Rescuers Down Under), it was immediately accepted. As Gabriel's co-director Eric Goldberg stated at the time in the San Francisco Chronicle, "It was the quickest story turnaround in studio history." The idea married the Shakespearean theme that the studio had long tried to mine, along with the notion of exploring a world that the animators simply hadn't before. Of course, one of the executives present at the event, Michael Eisner, reportedly asked aloud if the studio hadn't told the story of Pocahontas already (a quote that Gabriel once confirmed). But familiarity aside, the studio pressed on.

Considering the final product, the presence of Eric Goldberg as co-director might seem like a head-scratcher. Previous to Pocahontas, Goldberg was best known at Disney for his incredible, groundbreaking work as the supervising animator for the Genie in Aladdin. It was thanks to his work in that film that he was offered the co-director role on a film that was deliberately not going to be as wacky or outrageous as his previous gig. Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg — who would depart the studio in the fall of 1994 in an acrimonious split with Eisner — was careful to position Pocahontas as the studio's next Beauty and the Beast, the kind of tender romance that could garner the studio plaudits such as another Best Picture nomination, if not an outright win. 

Per the film's DVD commentary, what led Goldberg to stay on the project in spite of an intended somber tone was his personal reaction to the race riots in Los Angeles in 1992. Arguably, the way that we learn more about Pocahontas and her family could mirror that kind of reaction: we don't so much get the lived-in perspective of a person of color, as we do the perception created by a White man appreciating a culture aside from his own and the fraught-with-tension issues that his presence causes. 

Dig Till You Drop

Telling the story of Pocahontas required leaning into legend and myth as much as fact. In the animated film, Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard) is a teenager who falls for the dashing settler John Smith (Mel Gibson). In real life, Pocahontas was not Pocahontas at all; her real name was Mataoka. Her age depends on who you ask — some scholars place her at age 13 when she encountered John Smith, at age 26, and others place her as young as 11. (In the early 1600s, a 13-year old girl would have been seen as mature enough to be married to a man twice her age.)

It's not that the filmmakers and cast were pretending the film was fully faithful to the world of the 1600s. Bedard emphasized that the Disney film was "the legend" of the young woman. Regarding the two lead characters, the film's producer James Pentecost once acknowledged, "Pocahontas is a little older in our story...and the true John Smith was probably not a very likeable character." One of the film's animators, Tom Sito, dryly pointed out that to be truly faithful to real life would have involved some gruesome imagery: "Do you know what happened to the real Sir John Radcliffe? When the Indians captured Smith, he was nailed to a tree and skinned alive. That would have been a choice Disney moment. Maybe a good song sequence." Notably, another of the performers, Russell Means, a Native American activist, argued as far back as 1995 that the facts matter less than the overall message of the story: "'Pocahontas' is the first time Eurocentric male society has admitted its historical deceit. It makes the stunning admission that the British came over here to kill Indians and rape and pillage the land."

All of this is to make obvious a couple of points: the accuracy, or absence thereof, of Pocahontas has been in great doubt since it was released in 1995. The most pointed example of the film's accuracy coming into question was from Shirley "Little Dove" Custalow McGowan. In 1993, she was highlighted as one of the film's consultants. In the summer of 1995, in a different article, she said, "They have maintained the respect of my people, but they have lost the story of Pocahontas." (Decades later, in an interview, supervising animator Glen Keane mentioned his first encounter with Custalow McGowan, in the context of being visually inspired by her and her sister, and imagining himself as if he was John Smith, encountering Pocahontas for the first time.) 

If I Never Knew You

What this highlights is something both obvious and indisputable: history is messy. It's rare for historical events to line up in such a way that they would make for an entertaining film without some amount of dramatic license being taken. And unsurprisingly, Disney's version takes an extreme amount of creative liberty. While the animators touted the fact that the animal friends Pocahontas has don't talk, she still does have pals like the raccoon Meeko and the hummingbird Flit. Then there are her encounters with a talking tree voiced by Linda Hunt. Though the film has a bittersweet ending, as the wounded Smith is taken back to England to heal, this story has a vastly happier ending — in which almost all of the settlers lay down their arms, as do the Native Americans — than reality.

The real Pocahontas eventually married, to another settler named John Rolfe, and was brought to England before dying at age 21. And there's a fair deal of speculation among scholars of the period about how accurate John Smith was in recounting his relationship with Pocahontas. (Pointedly, the apocryphal tales we have to sift through regarding Smith and Pocahontas originate with him, not her. And as Pentecost admitted, Smith may not have been the dashing figure he attempted to cut for himself.) Typically, questions of historical accuracy wouldn't pervade a Disney film. But that's because, typically, their animated fare isn't about legitimately real people or such foundational events in the history of this country. 

Those anthropomorphized animals and flora and fauna are, some would argue, precisely why it's a fool's errand to ding Pocahontas for not being true to the story. How on Earth could this movie be fully accurate if there's a rascally raccoon on the sidelines trying to eat as much food as he can, for example? But the core emotional truth, or the intended core emotional truth, of Pocahontas has its underpinnings in reality, which is where the challenge truly begins.

The Footsteps of a Stranger

In short, the story of the young Native American woman we know as Pocahontas isn't exactly Disney-friendly. Or, it wasn't, at least until its complexities were sanded down into something more palatable, as deliberately hewed as it was to tragedy. From a critical standpoint, what makes Pocahontas fascinating is both how it serves as a response to the success of Beauty and the Beast, balancing the aims of traditional Disney storytelling with an attempt at telling a more profound story that will achieve universality, and in how it tries very hard to be more daring than previous studio efforts. In a few respects, it's truly remarkable to behold this film. Here, just under 10 years after the crushing failure of The Black Cauldron, is a film that pushes the limits of feature animation in terms of design and layout, if not storytelling as a whole.

It's an admirable problem that Pocahontas boasts: you can't ding this film or its makers for phoning it in. After the wave of success created by the first half of the Renaissance, the animators didn't just kick back and do what felt familiar, and thus lazy, for their next effort. This is likely a part of why, as mentioned in the last entry of this series, when animators were given the choice between working on either this or the film that would become The Lion King, they chose...Pocahontas.

Unlike later Disney animated films, which feel less creatively vital and more like a familiar blend of what had worked for the studio in the Renaissance, Pocahontas pushes further than previous films. It's darker in its depiction of avarice, and the cowardice of most of the settlers. What suffers in Pocahontas are the elements that can best be described as typical to Disney animated storytelling, if not the animation itself, which can often be more impressionistic than usual (especially in the gloriously colorful "Colors of the Wind" sequence). 

Goldberg, in a long-ranging interview at Animation Views, expressed his frustration with how Disney executive demands made it so Meeko, Flit, and Percy, the dog owned by the villainous Governor Ratcliffe, had to wind up being silent characters. "The decision to make them pantomime was a tough one for me in particular." Goldberg does go onto note that this decision is arguably correct considering what the final film is.

All the Voices of the Mountains

That, of course, speaks to the heart of the creative issues here. Some stories are simply not fit for the Disney storytelling machine. Though Pocahontas boasts some good animal-based visual gags, courtesy of prolific Disney animator Joe Grant (whose career began with films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Dumbo), they're at odds with the cruelty displayed by Governor Ratcliffe, the increasing racial divide between the English settlers and the Native Americans, and the climactic fight that leaves John Smith wounded and sent back to England to heal. 

Arguably, the balance of lighthearted comedy and darker storytelling was amplified in a couple of the Renaissance features. (Just wait until we talk about the next film in the Renaissance era.)  The comedy in Pocahontas feels more perfunctory than anything else, and was even acknowledged by Goldberg years later: "We kind of had to wedge comedy bricks back into an already built domestic house...my feeling is that, sadly, you could take the animals out of that movie and still have the same movie, you know?" 

Goldberg is unquestionably right, to the point where the comic business with Meeko, Flit, and Percy (the former and latter characters coming into conflict with each other quickly) feels like a series of miniature shorts shoved in the middle of a much more sober and serious-minded story about man's fear of the Other. It's equivalent to the way the Ice Age series dealt with Scrat, a silent squirrel desperate to retrieve an acorn in spite of impossible, outrageous odds; Scrat's bits are funny, and are mostly divorced from the stories occurring around him. 

The difference, of course, is that the Ice Age movies are about wacky talking animals. Pocahontas, when we're not watching Meeko steal food from a bath-taking Percy, is depicting the beginning of pervasive bigotry fomented by white men and targeting Native Americans, even as a representative of each of those groups falls for each other. The end of the film doesn't so much imply that the white man and the Native Americans have come to a permanent truce, but it ends with surprisingly little rancor — surprising because of what would follow in real life.

Savages

All told, Pocahontas is just 81 minutes long, and it takes literally 30 minutes for Pocahontas and John Smith to meet each other. Even leaving aside any issues of racial depiction or representation, any arguments of how the story is framed (we start with Smith as he and the other settlers arrive in the New World, not with Pocahontas herself), the romance that is meant to serve as the emotional backbone for the film doesn't get off the ground for a while, and only barely floats once the two characters meet.

What Pocahontas really asks, without realizing it's asking the question, is what can or can't be in a Disney animated movie if it wants to be successful. The broad strokes of the story — focusing on a young woman who's next in line to be a spiritual leader, and the man from another culture who stokes her passions and dreams — isn't just a possible Disney story. It's the same basic outline of something like The Little Mermaid, and the notion of a young woman being markedly different than everyone else around her feels a good deal like the characterization of Belle in Beauty and the Beast

The problem is grafting this outline onto genuine, real-world history fraught with racial tensions and divisiveness, especially coming from a company that did not have a perfect record of representation even in the 1990s. Pocahontas does not shy away from racial commentary; "Colors of the Wind", one of the core ballads of the film, features lyrics in which the heroine talks about how "you think the only people who are people are the people who look and think like you". 

The apex is a song titled "Savages" sung both by many of the white settlers and the Native American tribe, each singing about how the opposite group seems so Other-like to them, to the point where their differences can only be solved through bloodshed. Alan Menken returned as composer for these songs, with lyricist Stephen Schwartz taking over for Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. The swing at a grander meaning is impressive (even if a song where both sides are represented as being equal in terms of fear and stereotyping is maybe not terribly palatable), even if the execution doesn't come together. A number of the other songs, such as "Just Around the Riverbend" and "Colors of the Wind" are memorable enough while also serving as nagging reminders that there were only so many ways to have Disney heroes and heroines sing about their wants and desires without it seeming overly similar.

Choose the Smoothest Course

Unlike Disney's prior animated film focused on a predominantly non-White culture, Aladdin, there's more diverse casting in Pocahontas. Bedard, who would go onto play Pocahontas' mother in Terrence Malick's The New World, lends an air of grace to her performance, even though Disney had white Broadway singer Judy Kuhn provide her singing voice. Means and Gordon Tootoosis, too, stand out among the Powhatan characters; the authenticity their presence lends affords Pocahontas part of the sense of respect that seeps through decades later.

Among the white characters, David Ogden Stiers acquits himself best in two roles, as both the nefarious Ratcliffe and his obsequious helper Wiggins. Ratcliffe's big musical number "Mine, Mine, Mine" is both a sly commentary on the greed of the men who settled the New World as it is a direct presentation of how much more interesting Ratcliffe could have been had the film leaned harder on his frustrated insecurity at being dismissed by his fellow Englishmen. It's unquestionably odd to hear, among other voices, a young Christian Bale as one of the young settlers (not just because he too, like Bedard, would go onto co-star in Malick's The New World).

And then, of course, there's Mel Gibson. When he was cast as the heroic John Smith in the mid-1990s, it was because he wanted to do something for his kids. Gibson was arguably one of the biggest straight-up movie stars in a Disney movie to that point, next to Robin Williams in Aladdin. But hindsight is what it is, and listening to Gibson attempt to cut a charming figure in aural form in 2019 is to pretend that his last 25 years haven't been very eventful and controversial. (Your mileage may vary. Maybe you're OK with his personal problems, or you can separate yourself from him and the art he creates or takes part in. I don't have that capacity.)

It’s Not That I’m Bitter

Disney pulled out the stops for the release of Pocahontas. Like The Lion King the year before, Pocahontas got a splashy summertime opening date in the hopes of replicating the same success all over again. But The Lion King was a once-in-a-lifetime phenom, and Disney couldn't catch lightning twice. It didn't help matters that, within 1994 and mid-1995, the three big executives who had arrived at the studio to change its course were now down to one. Michael Eisner was still head of Disney, but Frank Wells had tragically died in a plane crash. When Eisner refused to promote Katzenberg to Wells' spot, Katzenberg left and helped cofound the rival studio DreamWorks SKG.

So when the film opened in June of 1995, Pocahontas was both a great hope of Disney's year despite expectations not being quite as high. Depending on how you look at it, Pocahontas was either moderately successful or a sign of the studio's descent beginning in toto. Domestically, Pocahontas grossed $141 million and was the fourth-highest-grossing film of the year. (Adjusted for inflation, it made nearly $300 million.) Reviews were more mixed, but the movie did at least decently financial, racial controversies aside. The film did win two Oscars, both for its music (Score and Song), ending up not remotely getting close to the Best Picture Oscar.

In the end, Pocahontas was a bold swing from Walt Disney Animation Studios that didn't result in a home run. Even in 1995, a film about a formative part of the American experiment – set to be released on the 400th birthday of its eponymous character, which is a hell of a lot of marketing chutzpah – couldn't translate to also being a Disney movie. The film's place in animation history, too, was marked by two unfortunate, unavoidable aspects: it came a year after The Lion King, and it wound up representing a style of animation that could easily begin to feel old hat. 

The release of Pocahontas included a teaser trailer for a new film from Walt Disney Pictures. It was also an animated film, featuring anthropomorphized inanimate objects voiced by famous people. Just as no one could have known in the mid-1990s that The Lion King would easily best Pocahontas, no one could have known in June of 1995 that Pocahontas would soon be forgotten by many audiences. And no one could have known that Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film, would fundamentally change the course of modern animation, even from a trailer. But Disney's Renaissance era was shifting rapidly, and they wouldn't realize it for years.

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Next Time: What would it look like if Disney Animation adapted a tragic novel by the author of Les Misérables? Find out.