Disney had the highest of expectations for Pocahontas. It was supposed to be as successful as Beauty and the Beast. It was supposed to win Oscars. It kept all of Disney’s top animators away from The Lion King because they felt they were a part of animation history with Pocahontas.
While the film did not live up to the impressively high standards set for it, in terms of critical and commercial success, there is a lot to really like about it. First off, the animation is quite stunning. The hard lines in character faces, the wispy curves of the natural world and the way they interact with each other to show the influences of man on the forest were perfectly executed. The music plays with classic Disney themes, using songs to push characters forward, betray motives and it is expertly delivered. Even nearly 20 years later, “Colors of the Wind” is a hummable tune.
This film also succeeds in its treatment of female characters. Women are strong and independent, standing up for what they want and believe in. Pocahontas is the most feminist heroine Disney has had yet. She is also the first who doesn’t end up with her “prince” at the end when she decides what’s best for her is staying with her community. Pocahontas has a strong maternal influence in the form of Grandmother Willow, a feisty old tree who imparts wisdom. Grandmother Willow was originally intended to be a male character voiced by Gregory Peck, but Peck reportedly turned down the role because he felt the character needed to be female.
The film’s lack of fun was a big criticism in many of the reviews in 1996. And it’s not a criticism that can really be argued. The feeling that the animators were trying desperately to make a serious film really comes through and the carefree fun that Disney became known for was largely axed from the film. Unsurprisingly, the film’s more mature feel did not resonate with the children Disney can usually rely on to support their animated efforts.
Reviewers were split down the middle. Entertainment Weekly called it “West Side Story in Jamestown” while Pocahontas herself is “aerobicized Native American superbabe, with long, muscular brown legs, regal shoulder blades, and silky black hair flowing down to her waist.” John Smith, on the other hand, was “a hunky oak of blond manhood.” Other than that, they said, everything was boring.
Apparently reviewers in the mid-’90s were a little too focused on appearances, to an almost creepy degree. The first paragraph of the New York Times review reads:
Fathers across America will soon be volunteering in record numbers to take the children to the movies, and here’s why: Pocahontas is a babe. She’s the first Disney animated heroine since Tinker Bell with great legs — maybe with any legs. She wears form-fitting, off-the-shoulder buckskin that would be as much at home in Beverly Hills as in 17th-century Jamestown. She’s got sloe eyes, a rosebud mouth, billowing black hair and terrific muscle tone. And she is the centerpiece of a film that’s as great-looking as its heroine.
But the review goes on to argue that while the film is beautifully animated, the screenplay is among the weakest to come out of the Disney shop and the story takes more liberties with history than even most fairy tales.
Disney has always taken liberties with its story adaptation — you will recall that Ariel doesn’t die and turn into seafoam at the end of The Little Mermaid like she does in the Hans Christian Anderson tale — and they never apologize for it. The company has been quite clear that they are making films to entertain children and their families. So it should come as no surprise that this film doesn’t capture the historical accuracy of the story of Pocahontas.
But what it does do extremely well is depict native American culture and the colonial tensions that existed at the time. The attitude of the English colonizers and the vocabulary they use to describe the native Americans is uncomfortable to watch at points. One need only read through the lyrics to the song “Savages,” which contains lines like “Their whole disgusting race is like a curse,” to get that point.
Disney ensured that only native American actors were cast in those roles and brought in historians and cultural consultants to advise the filmmaking process. Activist Russell Means served as consultant and actor on the film, voicing the role of Pocahontas’s father, Chief Powhatan. Means was quite pleased with the portrayal of his culture in the film and believed it had the potential to change how native Americans were viewed in society. He told the New York Daily News that the film’s best aspect was the depiction of his people’s matriarchal society and its treatment of women. “Women are the power and strength of their community and the nation,” he said at the time. “That’s Pocahontas, who turns out to be wiser than her father, wiser even than the wiseman. The world’s children are being introduced to my people through women.” He added that his character’s relationship with his daughter was what attracted him to the role of Powhatan.
Disney animation president Peter Schneider told the LA Times that celebrating native American culture was the goal of the film. “We wanted to offer an ennobling and empowering view of Native Americans that hadn’t been provided in cinema before,” he said.
I was enthralled with this film when it first came out. My sister and I pooled our birthday money that year to buy the VHS when it was released. I knew every lyric on the soundtrack by heart. But what’s interesting to me now, following all my research of this film’s creation, is that the intended hope that children would take away valuable lessons about native American culture largely went over my eight-year-old head. I’m not sure if that’s a product of where I grew up (southwestern B.C. where First Nations bands are a part of life) or if it’s because Disney, intending to teach, ended up making a more adult film than they intended. Probably a bit of both.