Friday, November 6, 2015

Disney Films: Pocahontas- I hope you don't like history

Or logic. Because there isn't much of either in this film. All in all it's not a bad film. It just doesn't live up to its predecessors in the Disney Renaissance. So, let's discuss the film that was considered the beginning of the end of the golden age of Disney Studios:

Oh, also, be forewarned:
As I said in the subtitle, I seriously hope you don't like history. The plot itself is based on a tale told by the real John Smith, who was, for all intents and purposes, notorious for telling exaggerations and sometimes straight-up fiction. The beginning of the film is somewhat historically accurate. The opening scene and accompanying narrative song give exposition on the brave adventurers (or mercenaries, depending on how you look at it) of the Virginia Company in 1607, sailing for glory, God, and gold (not necessarily in that order). The crew is led by Governor Ratcliffe (who actually existed and was nothing at all like he was portrayed in the film. More information about him can be found here.) and joined by rock star of his day, Captain John Smith (who also actually existed and was also very much unlike his film portrayal. More information about him can be found here). Along for the ride is young Thomas, who isn't vitally important to this story until close to the end, so we won't focus on him much. To say he's not cut out for adventuring would be a gross understatement. That's really all you need to know about him.

Most of the historical accuracy ends here. And we haven't even seen the title card yet. We cut to scenes of the Powhatan Indians singing a rather native-sounding song. I can't verify how accurate it actually is, since Eisner (then-head of Disney) refused to let actual Native Americans collaborate on the film at all. We eventually run into the titular character herself. Pocahontas, the real one I mean, was probably about 10 or 11 years old in 1607, and, based on the one engraving we have of the woman, she wasn't quite what one would call attractive:

What Not to Wear, 17th Century edition
Then again, with that ridiculous outfit she's wearing, anyone would look horrid. I'm sure in her native clothes, she was probably half-way decent if not pretty. No, what we see in the film is a rather lithe, buxom 18-year-old woman with an Asian face and a Caucasian body. But at least she looks good standing on ledges and stuff.

So, you know the story. White people show up, misunderstandings ensue, both sides are cautious of one another. It's only a matter of time before handsome hero meets winsome princess. And if the title card is where the historical accuracy stops, then this is pretty much where the logic stops. Very little that happens from here on out makes much sense. Actually, most of it isn't even possible. Pocahontas, by listening to her heart, is able to learn English. She doesn't even have an accent. Man, it's a good thing that doesn't actually work. Rosetta Stone would go out of business. As if that wasn't weird enough, apparently, you can learn a language by osmosis, because the rest of her tribe is apparently able to speak English, too. Don't believe me? Check out Powhatan chatting it up with the new neighbors (skip to the 2:00 mark):

Yeah. Magic English. Go fig. It's not the last time he does it, either. He also thanks John Smith at the end of the film. Then again, I guess magic isn't too far fetched in this movie. How else do you end up with talking trees (weeping willows, no less, which aren't even native to North America) and neon pink leaves? Not to mention, the coast Virginia has now moved inland a couple hundred miles. Because that's how far away the mountains are. So, I guess you'll just have to suspend your disbelief for this one a little more than usual.

Now, I know I've picked on this movie a lot so far. And I've had a lot of good reason to. But I by no means dislike this movie. Because if there's one thing this movie has going for it, it's the music. Howard Ashman may have died before he got to work on it, but that doesn't change the fact that this is some of long-time co-writer Alan Menkin's best work. While the lyrics do invoke a little native spiritualism (I know every rock and tree and creature/Has a life, has a spirit, has a name) it's pretty easy to navigate around. Whether it's jaunty chorus numbers like "Mine Mine Mine", Academy Award winner "Colors of the Wind", or intense battle march "Savages", the music in this film is truly something to behold. A lot of people at the time got incensed with the lyrics to "Savages" because they portrayed a lot of racism. I have no problem with the song because the entire film is portraying the dangers or racism. Of course they'd have a song about racism in it. How can you show two groups overcoming prejudice, if you don't show the prejudice in the first place? Kinda lessens the impact of the moral, doesn't it?

Perhaps the best song in the entire film, though, is the one that never made it. "If I Never Knew You", the love ballad between Smith and Pocahontas is simply gorgeous. Mel Gibson (voice of John Smith) even does his own singing. And surprise of surprises, it's not half bad. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's actually good. Not as good as Broadway veteran Judy Khun (singing voice of Pocahontas) but still pretty good. The song was cut for time, and because children in test audiences found it boring. But it's a real shame because the actual theme of the song shows up in several places in the score despite the fact that it was cut. Fortunately, a special edition DVD was released a few years ago that restores the song (and it's reprise) to its original position in the film. If you don't have the special edition DVD, you can check out this clip:

The reprise (the animation for which is a little awkward) can be found below as well. Awkward animation aside, though, having the reprise gives the ending an extra punch of emotion. Growing up, I probably would have liked this movie a lot more if they'd left these two scenes intact.

Wow. Now that's an ending to a movie. Arguably one of the greatest in the Disney canon. (It's still not Beauty and the Beast...but I'm biased.) If there's one other thing this movie has going for it, it's definitely the ending. And not just because of the music. It's not your typical Disney ending. The "princess" doesn't get what she wants in the end. Ariel wanted to be part of Eric's world. She got it. Belle wanted adventure. She got it. Pocahontas? She stays behind to keep two nervous factions from breaking out into all-out war and lets the man she loves sail away to a far-off land, in all likelihood never to see him again* (until the sequel, anyway). I get the feeling she didn't start out looking for a difficult job with multiple people's lives depending on her diplomatic prowess. But that's ultimately what she ended up with. I give kudos to Disney for being bold enough to break away from their "happily ever after" formula and try something unexpected. It's one of the most touching, poignant, and mature endings to a Disney film. This is probably why adults tend to like the film a bit more than children do.

Love it or hate it, this movie isn't all bad. Yeah, it has its flaws, but it also has its positive points. When it's bad, it's really bad. When it's good, it's really good. It's just one of those movies you just have to take at face value. It did spawn a direct-to-video sequel (as did practically every Disney animated film in the 90s) which I'll review on its own merits another time.

I will say this, though. While Disney cut out parts of Pocahontas to make it more appealing to children, it seems their next film was targeted almost entirely at adults, with no concern for what kids would think of it at all.

*It's worth noting that the real John Smith was sent back to England to receive treatment for a powder burn he sustained, but that wasn't until 1609, two years after his arrival in Jamestown. And once back in England, he never set foot in Virginia again. He did sail to a few other parts of the North American coast, however, so it's not like he retired or anything.


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