This animated drama inspired Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees to adopt a tribal name. From now on she will be known as Sleeps At Her Desk.
You think the only people who are people
It's easy to find fault with Pocahontas, Disney's animated film based on the life and legend of the Native American chieftain's daughter who saved the life of English explorer John Smith. The statuesque woman at the heart of Disney's film is certainly older than the historical Pocahontas at the time that she met Smith, and there's no historical evidence of a romance between them; Pocahontas, after all, married the Englishman John Rolfe (a story line Disney went on to cover in the ho-hum straight-to-video sequel Pocahontas: Journey to a New World). There's even dispute among historians as to whether she actually did save Smith's life. The film's depiction of the clash of cultures in Jamestown also omits acts of violence on both sides that are described in historical accounts. Many critics, white and American Indian alike, have lambasted the film for its historical inaccuracies and the liberties it takes with the source material (see, for example, the discussions and Wikipedia articles linked in the sidebar).
Nevertheless, there is a great deal of good in Pocahontas as Disney has rendered it. Wholly apart from its considerable artistic merits and emotional power, it sends an impassioned message about overcoming prejudice and learning to respect other cultures. To be fair, the makers of the film didn't set out to make a historical document. As James Apaumut Fall, the Native American actor who voiced the tribesman Kocoum, puts it (in the "Indian Opinions" discussion linked in the sidebar), "Instead of trying to tell the historical story of Pocahontas, it tells a story about respecting other cultures and people who are 'different' from yourself." According to Fall, "the bottom line…is that it delivers a good message for kids that I think should come from our culture." What Disney has created is a fable, and on that level it works—although, sadly, the earnest tone and emphasis on the love story will probably make it less appealing to children.
Facts of the Case
In 1607, the Virginia Company sends a ship from England to America to stake a claim on the New World and bring back the gold that's rumored to be abundant there. Ambitious Governor Ratcliffe (Disney regular David Ogden Stiers) is the nominal head of the expedition, but well-known explorer and adventurer John Smith (Mel Gibson, Signs) is the natural leader. The men are well armed and anticipate that they can easily fight off any Indians that they encounter, but John Smith's first meeting with a native is not at all what he expected when he finds himself face to face with the chieftain's daughter, Pocahontas (Irene Bedard).
Free-spirited Pocahontas has resisted taking life seriously, even when her father, Chief Powhatan (Russell Means, The Last of the Mohicans), tells her that he wishes for her to marry stern Kocoum and take her place as a leader of her people. As she and John Smith fall in love, however, she finds that her life is going in a direction she never anticipated, especially as tensions escalate between her village and the invaders. When John is sentenced to death for a killing committed by one of his English companions, Pocahontas must try to bring about peace before war breaks out between the English and her own people.
In some ways Pocahontas is a natural extension of previous Disney animated films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. There's a central female character who is restless and unwilling to fall in with the future that is expected of her; she has a strong relationship with her father; and she will meet a love interest from a different sphere. Yet Pocahontas is a striking, and ambitious, departure from its predecessors. In addition to depicting a real-life story instead of a fairy tale, it is essentially a serious film, a romantic drama instead of a romantic comedy. Instead of having magic per se, the story is endowed with a kind of mysticism, depicting the Native American characters as being connected to the spirit world (embodied, for example, in the Grandmother Willow character). The animal sidekicks in Pocahontas, who add comic relief and parallel (or comment upon) many of the major plot elements, don't speak, which adds to the more serious tone—as does the death of a prominent secondary character. Pocahontas even dispenses with the standard happy-ever-after ending. Visually one can also see departures from its predecessors, in the angular style and the more realistic proportions of most of the human characters. The risks the film takes in departing from audience expectations may have had as much to do with its relatively lukewarm reception as its fiddling with historical fact.
Yet despite its iffy historical accuracy in some areas, it is actually remarkably on-target in its depiction of the English settlers' attitudes toward the New World. There were those who hoped for a chance at a better life, like the young Englishman Thomas (Christian Bale, American Psycho); romantic adventurers like Smith, who feel excitement at the prospect of the unknown and the challenges it holds; and greedy opportunists like the exploitative Ratcliffe, who simply sees the new land as something he can grab and convert into cash. The musical number "Mine, Mine, Mine" does a fine job of presenting the latter two attitudes—which echo those one actually finds in writings from the era—into a compact form. The opening "Virginia Company" number also shows us a broad spectrum of motivations; the ensemble of male voices sings that "the New World is like heaven, and we'll all be rich and free." In hindsight it's ironic that these men will seize their own freedom at the expense of others', but the filmmakers are to be applauded for showing that the English aren't essentially villainous, which would have been an easy step to take.
I suspect that one of the reasons Pocahontas isn't ranked by most viewers in the highest level of Disney films is that it's much more serious than we've come to expect Disney's animated musicals to be. These are recognizably human characters clashing violently in a nonmagical setting, and a character actually dies onscreen. That's going to pull a lot of viewers up short. The central romance is also an unusually adult one, colored by Pocahontas's guilt about betraying her people and the unlikelihood that the lovers will have a future together; in combination with the grave subject matter and greatly understated use of humor, this makes Pocahontas a movie that is destined to appeal more to adults than to children. In the musical tradition, this is much less like Beauty and the Beast and much more like West Side Story in its depiction of the violence spawned by prejudice (but without the weirdness of dancing street gangs). It's a shame that kids may be too turned off by the romance and the darker tone to appreciate the good points of the story, just as it's a shame that the filmmakers didn't take the even more courageous step of eliminating the comic sidekick characters altogether (although I'm fond of the mischievous raccoon, Meeko) and making this a consistently mature film.
The emphasis on romance is even more visible in the extended version of the film offered here along with the theatrical release. The extended version features a newly restored ballad, "If I Never Knew You," a duet between John Smith and Pocahontas on the eve of his execution, which is also briefly reprised in new footage near the end of the film. (The melody will already be familiar to viewers, since it's frequently worked into the score and played in a pop version over the end credits in the theatrical release.) This is a particularly beautiful and moving song, expressing just what Pocahontas and Smith have gained from knowing each other at a time when they seem about to lose each other irrevocably. I'm delighted to have it restored, but I can well understand why kids watching this sequence in the test screening got restless; it's exactly the kind of thing that young ones will find mushy. Likewise, I love getting to hear Mel Gibson sing a ballad, but children may find it laughable when the dashing hero begins to croon. As one of the speakers in the audio commentary notes, there's "a cornball quality when you have a male figure singing sincerely on screen." This poignant song, like the love story it encapsulates, will probably appeal far more to adults (or adolescent girls) than to children.
The songs and Oscar-winning score are in fact among the film's greatest assets and contribute exponentially to its emotional impact. Pocahontas features some of composer Alan Menken's most gorgeous and emotionally stirring melodies, perfectly complemented by Steven Schwartz's deft and incisive lyrics. Since this project was Menken's first Disney film without lyricist Howard Ashman (who died while Aladdin was still being completed), I found particularly interesting the featurette in which two weigh in on collaborating for the first time and defining boundaries (since both men are lyricist-composers but were hired for a specific job). The featurettes on the music of the film are good as far as they go, but I would have liked to hear more about the development of individual songs and melodies, especially since the score and songs make use of distinct musical traditions and instruments to create contrasting styles for the English and the Native Americans. However, "If I Never Knew You" gets a featurette to itself, which discusses how it ended up being cut from the film and then restored.
Audiovisual quality for this release is superb. The visual transfer in particular stands out as a major improvement over the VHS release: This digitally restored print is very clean, with purer color and no distracting grain as was so evident in the VHS transfer. (I haven't seen the original Gold Collection DVD version, but I understand that it too was riddled with grain and was unsatisfying visually.) Since color and lighting effects are both used so effectively in the film, it's particularly satisfying to see them rendered with such fidelity. Both the dreamy blue-green palette of the earlier scenes and the dramatic red-washed scenes of impending (and actual) violence gain in impact from the fine transfer. Audio is pure, clean, and richly dispersed among speakers to create a natural aural landscape, with the score and songs emerging with purity and power. There's not as much bass or breadth to the aural landscape of this film as to some live-action ones, but what's present comes through without distortion.
In this two-disc release, the first disc contains the two different versions of the film and a small assortment of extras, the best of which is the audio commentary by producer James Pentecost and codirectors Eric Goldberg and Mike Gabriel. This lively commentary has lots of interesting behind-the-scenes information on historical authenticity, changes the film underwent during its development, goofs, and even fun trivia tidbits like the fact that one of the animators was fond of sneaking in joke images that the supervisors had to be vigilant about removing. The commentary also illuminates the filmmakers' intentions and casts light on some of the symbolism in the film. The other extras on this disc are largely kids' fare: sing-along versions of "Colors of the Wind" and "Just Around the Riverbend" (both in full-screen and of reprehensible visual quality), the Vanessa Williams video for the Oscar-winning "Colors of the Wind," a set-top game, and directions for making two craft projects, a drum, and a dream catcher.
Disc Two contains the bulk of the extra materials. These are extras that will appeal more to teens and grownups, and the menu design reflects this: Instead of being loaded down with cute stuff to appeal to kids, the menus feature bold, colorful backdrops of concept art and instrumental selections from the musical score. (By the way, you'd better be fond of "Colors of the Wind," because you'll be hearing that song a lot over the course of all the special features.) A particularly thoughtful feature on the menus for both discs is that the running time of a feature will display when you move the icon to it.
The half-hour making-of featurette dating from around the time of the film's release is included; it's hosted by Irene Bedard and offers a fairly satisfying look at the film's origin and making. Viewers can get further glimpses of the development process through the storyboard-to-film comparison and the production progression demonstration, which shows a sequence going from storyboard stage to rough animation through cleanup animation and final version. We also get to see an early presentation reel, featuring concept art accompanied by a demo version of "Colors of the Wind." Almost fifteen minutes' worth of deleted or alternate scenes are present, including two complete deleted musical numbers and other musical snippets; several feature optional audio commentaries. The animation in most of these sequences is still in the storyboard stage, and some clips feature temporary vocal tracks. About the only deleted material that's close to the final stage appears in a "miscellaneous scenes" sequence that largely focuses on the Wiggins character, who started out as being considerably more like his snide and bloodthirsty master.
Character design gets covered in many specific sections on different characters, some of which contain introductions from the animators and test footage in addition to the art galleries. I always find this one of the most fascinating parts of any animated film—seeing how the characters started and how they metamorphosed until they became the version we know. John Pomeroy, key animator for John Smith, discloses that he watched Errol Flynn movies to determine how the character would move, and the swashbuckling influence of Flynn is evident in much of the early art for Smith, which often depicts him in high boots and mustache. Glen Keane, supervising animator for Pocahontas, appears in a clip from a lecture in which he demonstrates the differences between Pocahontas's design and that of Ariel, who represents the standard Anglo Disney heroine. This is an entertaining clip, especially since Keane also allows us to compare the one contemporary portrait of Pocahontas with his (flattering) interpretation of her. Elsewhere in the character design features we learn what a narrow escape we had from a character named Redfeather, who was deleted. I shudder at the thought of a talking turkey adding comic relief to this film.
A generous gallery of background and concept art shows off the visual beauty that characterizes the film; there are so many index pages, in fact, that some category divisions might have been helpful. The publicity gallery features the usual posters in addition to some more surprising advertising materials, my favorite of which was the fashion layout, in which Pocahontas models fashions designed by Anna Sui, Isaac Mizrahi, and other top designers. There's a short feature about the Central Park premiere of the film, which is of slight interest. Rounding out the proliferation of extras are two theatrical trailers, a multi-language reel that lets us hear how "Colors of the Wind" sounds in a multitude of foreign languages, the music featurettes I mentioned earlier, and the original video for the pop version of "If I Never Knew You," which I personally detest but which some viewers may welcome.
Especially for a non-Platinum Edition, this is a highly satisfying assortment of extra materials; the only really blatant omission is any retrospective discussing the film's mixed critical and audience reception, but that's probably too negative for the folks at Disney.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even setting aside the sticky issue of historical inaccuracy, the film is sometimes a bit heavy-handed in getting its message across, as in a sequence in which Ratcliffe uses cannons to fell trees, combining technology, violence, and depredation of natural resources in one credulity-straining swoop. And even a character as in touch with her environment as Pocahontas shouldn't be able to escape a mauling when she picks up and cuddles a bear cub in the presence of its parent. Sequences like these may lead some viewers to feel that the film draws its characters too much in black-and-white terms, presenting the white men as irredeemable predators and the indigenous Americans as impossibly noble and innocent.
Such an argument, however, overlooks the ways that the screenplay complicates the characters, offering shades of grey on both sides. Not only John Smith but the valet Wiggins (David Ogden Stiers) and young Thomas show different sides of the invaders and prove that not all are inherently wicked or intolerant. Thomas is a plucky but inexperienced lad who hopes to find in the new world a chance to better himself and his family; the new world represents for him a new start, a chance to transcend his low social and economic stratum. On his part, it's not malice or arrogance but naïveté that leads him to take Ratcliffe's lead and assume that he has the right to appropriate the lands. Similarly, the Native American characters aren't all paragons of wisdom and insight; Powhatan's refusal to listen to Pocahontas perpetuates the ill feeling between his people and the English, and Kocoum's sexual jealousy—and perhaps some racial intolerance as well—leads him to attack John Smith when he sees him kissing Pocahontas. The powerful musical number "Savages" is a sobering depiction of one fundamentally human quality that both the opposing groups share: a tendency toward violence. After all, Pocahontas is fighting against not one side but both when she pleads for peace instead of war. "We didn't want to delineate anyone as all good, all pure, all that," says producer Pentecost on the commentary, and the decision makes for a more complex story than viewers may anticipate.
It's true that the film is overtly message driven, but that's a difficult trap to escape. Similar films like West Side Story—and heck, even Romeo and Juliet—have the same tendency. I wasn't bothered by this, since I've become used to the didactic orientation of other Disney animated films, but some viewers may find this an insurmountable drawback.
Pocahontas goes to prove the old maxim that you can't please everyone, and some viewers will find its romanticized approach to history impossible to stomach. In addition, although it was made and marketed as a kids' film, Pocahontas is probably too intense for some young viewers, and other youngsters (especially boys) will be put off by the emphasis on romance. However, older viewers may well find, as I have, that it's a stirring and beautiful film that improves on further acquaintance. If you can set aside your preconceptions and enjoy it on its own terms, you stand a good chance of discovering that Pocahontas has many riches to offer.
The court has decided to exercise tolerance. Not guilty.
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• Audio Commentary by Producer and Directors
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