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.

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