13 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 33: Pocahontas

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

It's rather remarkable how best laid plans often play out pear-shaped. For example, in the early nineties Disney put two animated features into production at about the same time. One film was considered a gamble at best, a disaster at worst. The other feature meanwhile was looked to as a sure bet, a winner from the start. All of the veteran animators jumped to work on the surefire film, expecting accolades and huge commercial success. The new kids were left to their own devices on the other picture. That other film turned out to be The Lion King, which would in short order become the biggest box office success in Walt Disney Studio history. And that previously pegged golden ticket was an animated version of Pocahontas. While the resulting film was a major box office draw and was liked well enough, it absolutely paled in comparison to the reception lavished upon The Lion King. This gap has only increased in the years since. 

Pocahontas opens strongly with a couple of nice flourishes that are unfortunately never fully realized. At the very beginning of the film we see the iconic Disney logo, featuring the white two dimensional castle on a blue background as it appeared on all of the features for decades. However, instead of the traditional corporate theme song we get ominous and epic drum rolls. Regrettably, as the logo gives way to the establishing shots of a port, the drums segue into a rather routine Alan Menken tune called "The Virginia Company" featuring John Smith and the rest of the westward settlers boarding their ships for the new world. The epic nature hinted by the drums does return though, albeit briefly. Shortly after the opening chorus we end the scene with the Union Jack swaying gently in the blue sky. There is then a severe cut to a now-tattered flag being tossed about as the boat crashes through a terrible ocean storm. The ensuing action sequence that displays Smith's heroics and defines his selfless nature is nowhere near as harrowing as that first shot which provides a genuine jolt of excitement.

The entire score is once again composed by Menken, who collaborates here with lyricist Stephen Schwartz. The best one can say about the soundtrack is that the songs are rather inoffensive. In another word, that means they're bland. Most of the compositions fulfill a perfunctory role of conveying a theme in big bold letters, nothing more. The grand love theme, "Colors of the Wind" is as fleeting and forgettable as the weather it describes. However the two best songs succeed, both for the same reason. "Mine, Mine, Mine" and "Savages" switch their perspectives halfway through their performance, becoming juxtapositions of previous verses and changing the meaning at the heart of the chorus. The former begins as a greedy manifesto by the foppish villain Ratcliffe who sings it to the British transplants he has tasked with digging for riches in this new land. Midway through the tune cuts to Smith, who has ventured out alone and discovered the majestic wonders of the natural world. He sings triumphantly of the beauty that awaits him. Intercut images of gorgeous vistas and barren holes reinforce the dichotomy of the men's missions. Later on, as the film roars to its climax, the manipulative Ratcliffe once again sings to convince his men, although this time it is to fight the "savages". This song splits its narrative between the British and the Indians who both think the other is the unenlightened villain. It's all so utterly obvious, with nary a trace of nuance, but to be fair, musicals are rarely known for their subtlety. 

Like its soundtrack, the film provides few surprises or opportunities for transcendence. However, there are a couple of touches that spark one's interest. The decision to include a depiction of the spiritual magic the Indians ascribe to the land is a nice one, and allows for choice moments of pretty animation. Twirling leaves entwining the hands of Pocahontas and John Smith and creatures conjured out of smoke remain the lingering images from the film. Occasional moments of movement shine as well, particularly the drawings of Pocahontas as she stalks John Smith through the forest. Her nimble crouching is a solid bit of physical animation.

Throughout the film there are images that recall moments of animation past. In the opening credit sequence we pass through a forest at dawn that look suspiciously like the woods of Fantasia's "Ave Maria" sequence. Meanwhile the exterior shots of Grandmother Willow, the magical, matronly tree that gives Pocahontas advice looks like a cross between the foliage included in Make Mine Music's "Trees" section as well as the sheltered cove where Sebastian serenades Eric and Ariel with "Kiss the Girl" in The Little Mermaid. A faint resemblance to a non-Disney character appears as well. Pocahontas's raccoon friend Meeko spends much of the film being chased by a pompous pug named Percy. Their antics fit in the lineage of myriad animated antagonists, including Tom and Jerry, but thanks to a subtle design (that admittedly may have been entirely unintentional) Meeko looks like the Roadrunner when viewed from the side. Another design nod may have been to a film then currently in production. While she examines Smith's helmet, there is a shot of Pocahontas's reflection in the metal that for a brief moment looks suspiciously like future Disney princess, Mulan.

While the film rarely reaches moments of grand artistry, the filmmakers do make a wise choice that distinctly separates Pocahontas from some of the worst aspects of the more recent features. This little omission in fact instantly makes the film feel more mature, even though the themes are the same as many of the pictures before it. Unlike Aladdin and The Lion King, which seemed to revel at times in their most infantile excesses, Pocahontas simply denies the supporting animal characters voices. This decision speaks volumes. Say what one will about the slapstick antics of Meeko and Percy, it is all a much easier pill to swallow than if they were voiced by the likes of John Candy as was originally intended. 

Pocahontas's shortcomings are many. The boring design of John Smith unfavorably recalls the uninspired work of He-Man, Master of the Universe. The themes ascribed this story are far too black-and-white, even for a Disney picture. Pocahontas stops John Smith from shooting a bear because we are to believe that she is one with all of nature, as if all Indians were tranquil vegetarians and giant beasts stalking the forest understood and honored that. Also, the filmmakers lazily use the surrounding magic to allow Pocahontas to understand English after Smith has only spoken a couple of sentences. Worst of all, the romance that is central to the entire success of the picture is rushed and wholly unconvincing. The two continent-crossed lovers meet only a few times. After the first visit Pocahontas tells Smith never to see her again and then shortly thereafter, as soon as he disobeys her, she pleads to see him again soon. It isn't long before they're making out and she's throwing herself upon him to spare his life. 

However, this romance--despite its unbelievability--results in a stupendous end for a Disney picture. The couple do not live happily ever after together. John Smith gets shot as he throws himself in front of Pocahontas's father, protecting him from Ratcliffe's intended bullet. It is then deemed that Smith will recuperate better in England, so he is loaded on a boat to return home. He asks Pocahontas to join him but she decides that she is needed at home with her people. As the boat sails off, she runs to a cliff and waves goodbye. The filmmakers don't give us any indication on what happens afterward. Possibly John Smith died during the four month return to England. It seems incredibly likely. It is difficult to describe how incredibly refreshing watching two people go their separate ways is. After all of the princesses who gave up everything without a moment's thought just to run off and join a boring prince, Pocahontas gains ample respect for her decision to stay. 


  1. So. . . better than The New World?

    1. I was proud of myself for not mentioning Malick once.