It’s easy for us to look back on on Pocahontas and feel a certain way. We have moved on so much in terms of ‘wokeness’, so there’s things in Pocahontas that we will now more readily realize as being problematic. However, I want to view this film as it was back then – the first Disney animated film with a woman of colour in a leading role that actually showed the settlers for being entitled murderers.
That’s where I’m going to leave the subject matter in terms of racial sensitivity. There’s more that could have been done, yes, and this is an utter mangling of history for profit, still yes, but let’s just look at this in terms of the Disney classics that preceded it.
Let’s start with the obvious, Pocahontas is one of the weak links in the Disney Renaissance chain. When the company you keep is The Lion King and Beauty & The Beast it is going to be hard to measure up. The fact that they thought this would be a great opportunity to go for another shot at the Best Picture nomination (and so fashioned this more on Beauty & The Beast idea rather than the more comedic Aladdin) makes some sense, but it is also the film’s undoing.
In the end, the script and storyline is just not up to snuff. It suffers a lot from time dilation issues, which leads to the fridge logic problem of “how did both sides understand each other’s language” and “how did they make a settlement so quickly”. Also, this does a disservice to an otherwise strong and brave female protagonist who ends up making a lot of her big decisions because she fell in love with a boy from the enemy side. Her ending makes up for it somewhat though.
Looking on the positives, let’s talk about the music. Alan Menken, once again, delivers as we have come to expect from him. This time, due to the untimely death of Howard Ashman, Menken is working with Stephen Schwartz (who most people my age will know from writing Wicked). ‘Colors of the Wind’ is a brilliant song and the whole sequence with Judy Kuhn’s amazing vocals and the beautiful nature imagery is the highlight of the movie.
I also have to say that I really enjoyed the light relief provided by Meeko the raccoon. So much of this film, like the whole ‘Savages’ sequence which is problematic (although, I really do believe was well-intended), has a heavy message to it. Thus the thieving antics of a very hungry raccoon, as well as his interactions with the pampered dog belonging to Radcliffe, really comes as a pleasant diversion.
The animation is still beautiful, but it shows the beginning the descent into a more angular style that is going to dominate for a very long time. Once it begins to bother me, which will probably be around Tarzan, I think I’ll have to go more into it. However, there’s little to fault in how they used the animation to bring life to the landscapes and some of the more spiritual elements of the film.
Next time in the Disney canon is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is possibly the weirdest choice of source material for a children’s film but also has one of the best opening sequences in animated cinema history. It’s one of the few films I can remember seeing in the cinema as a very young child (I was six) and is one that I have a bit of a soft spot for.