Ranking the Disney Canon – 38: Pocahontas

” Look, don’t do this. Savage is just a word, uh, you know. A term for people who are uncivilized.” – John Smith

(A quick note here: This will be the first time that I talk about a film that has been extended or changed since its original release. For the purpose of this list, I am going to consider the original version of the film when ranking said film.)

1995’s Pocahontas is the film right in the middle of the Renaissance era. Coming off the heels of that famous string of successes, Pocahontas was an attempt at a turning point, in which Disney would start to attempt to repeat Beauty and the Beast’s Best Picture Nomination. There was somewhat of a shift towards more dramatic films, though the humorous films still would exist in the years to come.

Pocahontas is based on the true tale and legends of our title character, who lives with her tribe in what the English would call Virginia. Said English are just arriving in the New World, led by John Smith, a great adventurer, and Governor John Ratcliff, who is obsessed with finding gold and gaining fame. Encouraged by a dream and by her spirit guild, a tree known as Grandmother Willow, Pocahontas follows John Smith around, curious about these new people. The two eventually meet and connect, but when both sides’ distrust of the other leads to Smith’s capture and the brink of war, Pocahontas must find a way to prevent the bloodshed and save John Smith.

STRENGTHS

Like most Disney films dealing with nature, the world of Pocahontas is just beautiful. The sweeping views of the forest and the river are breathtaking in a lot of ways, and it follows in the great tradition that films like Bambi first presented. The animation in general is beautiful. Pocahontas’s animation is so subtle, and so real, in a way. She is most certainly one of the best animated women of the 90s.

Pocahontas herself is a classic protagonist, in my eyes. I think she is effectively built up, and is a soul of her own, and a character we want to care for. She is that classic, curious Disney protagonist, and I think one of the strongest parts of the film.

I do love the progression of the film’s second and third acts, especially the lead up into the climax. For a film that cannot have a huge battle for the climax, for the purpose of the story, it does a good job keeping the climax exciting and interesting. The lead up to this climax is also greatly exciting, thanks in large part to the song “Savages,” which is an intense number. I don’t want to say its edge of your seat, but it’s a great, engaging, moment that keeps you interested.

Overall, for all of the faults it has, the film has a strong story, one that is great to follow and is enhanced by its second half. In terms of the story, there is a proper build all the way through, and it is one that I don’t mind revisiting every once in a while. Not every other day, mind you, but it certainly has its share of memorable moments that stick with you.

I’m going to mention the soundtrack in the weaknesses section, but it does have its strong moments. “Just Around The Riverbend” is a personal favorite of mine, “Colors of the Wind” is the film’s signature song, and as mentioned above, “Savages” is pretty fantastic, especially the second part of it. This is another classic Alan Menken musical.

WEAKNESSES

As mentioned above, Pocahontas is a film that tries to be a very serious one. One of the faults I have with it is that it tries to hard to be this grand, epic story with this powerful message. It’s a well-known fact that many of the people in the Disney Studio at the time decided to work on Pocahontas over The Lion King because they all though it was going to be this great Best Picture film. In trying so hard to be this film, however, it lacks that pop, that magic, that the films before it had. It lacks humor (outside of the Meeko-Percy rivalry, which gets old pretty fast) and lacks that one fun, upbeat song. In its attempts to be serious, it also tends not be very subtle about what it’s trying to do, in both script and song. The message feels forced on the audience, rather than coming naturally through the characters. It is very much doing everything other than flash the words directly on the screen to tell you exactly what it wants to say.

John Smith is not a strong character, and has a very, very quick arc. In the beginning of the film, he is very, VERY clear on how he was defeated many “savages” before and will do it again. Yet, as soon as he sees Pocahontas, he drops this notion and connects with her. Why, because Pocahontas is a woman? What the film needed was for Pocahontas to do something that would surprise John Smith and interest him. Instead Pocahontas just stands there, and John Smith is instantly enchanted. While I think their connection and relationship becomes strong, it hurts the film’s desired message in the long run. John Smith needed a slower change to make the message more powerful, and also not as in your face.

When you based an animated film on real world events and legends, you walk a very thin line with the content, and I don’t think that Pocahontas does a very good job with it. I’ll admit that I don’t know a ton about Native American culture, but I’m not exactly sure the presentation of them that Pocahontas gives is an especially good one. I can’t even say the English Colony is 100% great either.

For a story that needs to be realistic, there are a lot on unrealistic elements to the story. I can forgive the Grandmother Willow addition, as it is as much Disney Magic as this film gets. What really turns me off, though, is the fact that John Smith and Pocahontas actually have conversations in English, and there is no hesitation or need to explain. It seems like they perfectly understand each other, which is a huge mistake, and totally takes me out of the film’s realistic tone. There is absolutely no realistic way that they would have the conversations they have without some sort of issue. While they tried too hard to be serious, I also feel they were playing it way too safe here.This is a film that should have been heavy on Body Language, and should have used animation to the fullest. To make the film work, they really needed to push the animation and lack of dialogue to the limit, in the way that WALL-E would eventually do many years later. It may have been impossible to do, but when you want to present a story of two different cultures meeting for the first time, that’s what you need to do. Or at least make it more clear that there isn’t a perfect understanding of the other.

And now my minor gripe with the soundtrack: I dislike how songs are split up by scenes. Savages is a good example of this. The song would have been much better off if the scene with Pocahontas and Grandmother Willow could have happened before the song, which would have made the song better as a whole. In fact, every song is split up by scenes except both of Pocahontas’s songs. There are not that many songs when you think about it, but there is annoying amount when you consider each spilt up an actual reprise.

What the soundtrack is really missing is a true love song between John Smith and Pocahontas, and in fact, a song was nearly fully animated before being cut, called “If I Never Knew You.” Not only does this some really help their relationship, but it also does more for the film’s message than any other section of the film. The animation for this segment was finished for the DVD release, and improves the film immensely. One simple song can change so much.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

The best moment of the film, for me, is the second half Savages, leading right up into the climatic final confrontation between Pocahontas and her father. Mind you, I would have preferred saying the entirety of Savages, but just the second half is still good.

I debated for a long time between “Just Around the Riverbend” and “Colors of the Wind” for Best Song. I go with my heart here, and choose “Just Around the Riverbend.” I just love the song’s pace with both the music and the lyrics.

CLOSING COMMENTS

Pocahontas has great visuals, a great protagonist, and a strong consistent story, which is enough to watch the story. It is hard to ignore the film’s almost self-aware sense of being serious, and the undermining of the film’s realistic tone by cheating on the communication aspect. I truly think Disney was pushing their luck in choosing Pocahontas as a subject of film. The film has its moments, but to really be that classic film, it would have had to taken a lot more chances. It’s still good in many respects, and that’s why it is 38.

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One thought on “Ranking the Disney Canon – 38: Pocahontas

  1. Great visuals, a memorable protagonist, and a strong consistent story, ever since Disney brought up the idea of making a movie based on one of history’s most memorable figures they were determined to make “Pocahontas” the story to watch opposed as a certain other feature that ended up more popular… So what happened? Fans can be aware that the film presents itself as serious with rather serious issues and though I will never be a fan of “realism” it does fail to communicate as opposed to what did happen. Although, to be fair, if the film simply had just ended here and not on that horrid sequel that followed, I would honestly have been okay with it rather than dwelling on what this film didn’t have. It’s one thing to take the risk of doing a movie based on an actual person, but had this movie taken more chances then it would be another thing to add to all the moments that are otherwise memorable for fans who grew up with this movie. Still, Pocahontas does have it’s charm and it has it’s breath-taking moments, so it’s still a grand movie to add to your collection of Disney classics.

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