Saturday, 20 October 2012

Pocahontas (1995)

Walt Disney Studios had very high hopes for their film Pocahontas and thought it would be a smash-hit success. Disney were on a huge high in the 1990s with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King all being huge critical and financial hits. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was head of Disney Animation at the time, was even convinced that this film would get a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars just like Beauty and the Beast did. But it didn't. Pocahontas wasn't a financial flop but it didn't make as much money as Disney were hoping. The critics didn't rip it to shreds but no-one loved it as much as the previous Disney Renaissance films. I can definitely see why. The film has some major flaws and even when I was a child I didn't like this film as much as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, etc...

The film starts off in England in the year 1607 with Captain John Smith and a group of British sailors boarding a ship to the "New World", Virginia to be precise. The leader on the ship is Governor Radcliffe and he's convinced that Virginia is full of gold. When his crew lands he gets his men to work by getting them to dig with shovels and blow stuff up with dynamite. That's not how you find gold! Unsurprisingly this upsets the Native Americans who are living in the area and it leads to conflict. However in the midst of all the tension and fighting between the natives and the settlers, John Smith meets Pocahontas, the daughter of the Native American tribe leader. Pocahontas teaches John Smith about her way of life and gives him a new perspective. We then get a Romeo and Juliet-style love story.

Now Disney were clearly trying to do something a bit different with Pocahontas. If Disney has a comfort zone then it's in adapting European fairy tales. Pocahontas was an obvious attempt to tell a story that dealt with American history. But that's one of my problems with this film because most of the "history" in this film is completely made up! It's basically just a fantasy romance with characters sharing the names of people who actually existed in real-life. Yes, I know that you can never rely on Disney for accurate adaptations and it doesn't usually bother me when they stray away from fictional fairy tales. Fairy tales are re-written all the time anyway. But Pocahontas isn't based on fiction. Pocahontas and John Smith were real people who actually existed so Disney are essentially re-writing history. The real-life Pocahontas married a man called John Rolfe and she never had a romance with the real-life John Smith. Well it has been established that Pocahontas and John Smith knew each other but it's very, very unlikely that they had a romance - since Pocahontas would have been aged 11 or 12 at the time! The real-life John Smith certainly didn't look anything like the hunky blonde that you see in Disney's Pocahontas either. He was a short, portly roundhead (see below). I do give Disney's Pocahontas a bit of credit for not having Pocahontas and John Smith end up together at the end though. John Smith gets shot and he has to sail back to England to get treatment for his wounds. Er, but shouldn't that voyage take several months?! Surely he'll die of septicaemia on the way?!

The real John Smith
There are other big problems with Disney's Pocahontas as well. One big issue that I have with this film is that the characters are boring and have no real depth, even the main characters are dull so it's pretty hard to care about their love story. Pocahontas is free-spirited and she gets to do some stuff that other Disney heroines don't but she's bland and just not very interesting; although at least she isn't as boring as John Smith! His character is voiced by Mel Gibson. Er, am I the only one who finds it a bit ironic that Mel Gibson is playing the leading male in a film that's trying to teach kids not to be racist?! There's a few famous names in Pocahontas actually. Billy Connolly plays a settler called Ben, and a 21 year old Christian Bale has a small role as a settler called Thomas. My mind was blown when I found that out! Interestingly, Christian Bale would later go on to star in another re-telling of the Pocahontas story when he played Pocahontas's real-life husband John Rolfe in 2005's The New World.

My final problem with this film is that there are aspects of it that just don't make any sense. For example: how come the animals don't talk in this film? I mean, a freakin' willow tree can talk but the animals can't?! Why don't the animals talk in this film?! One of the big themes in the film is communicating with nature. It would actually make sense for the animals to talk in Pocahontas! Speaking of other things that fail to make sense in this film: how come John Smith, who is supposed to be English, has an American accent?! And what about the language barrier between Pocahontas and John Smith being overcome so easily simply by a magical gust of wind?! If only all language barriers could be solved this way!

As you can probably tell I'm not a huge fan of this film. It rewrites history but I'm actually more bothered by the lack of interesting characters, the weak plot and the fact that there isn't all that much humour. I definitely don't hate the film though and I certainly don't think it's awful. The film does has its positives. The animation is stunning and I really love the music. Alan Menken's music is gorgeous and Stephen Schwartz's lyrics are good. Savages is a pretty catchy song and Just Around the River Bend is lovely. Colours of the Wind is a beautiful song and I always love listening to it. It deservedly won an Oscar for Best Song and Judy Kuhn's voice is beautiful. Judy Kuhn played Cosette in the 10th anniversary concert of Les Miserables and although she was good I like her voice more in Pocahontas. I think it's probably because I like her mezzo voice more. Finally, the film does have some nice messages about anti-racism, respecting other cultures and how we should care about nature. It featured Native American actors voicing many of the characters too. I'll finish with my favourite song from the film : )

Rating: 3/5

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