It may seem surprising, given that it was the immediate follow-up to my favourite Disney film, The Lion King, but until last night Pocahontas was the only one of the Disney Renaissance films I had never seen from beginning to end. The others I saw in cinemas or later on video, but not Pocahontas. It’s also probably the most uneven of their films from the era, and with The Little Mermaid about the most divisive, which is reflected in the extremely mixed reviews it’s had since release.
Pocahontas was supposed to be Disney’s big hit of the 90s, a fact often mentioned rather smugly by Lion King fans, as according to accounts from those who worked in the studio at the time, it was made plain that Pocahontas was the more prestigious project. And then, of course, The Lion King went on to break records and gross more than double what Pocahontas managed, and has endured as a far more celebrated film in terms of story, characters and even music.
The fact is that Pocahontas just isn’t very epic, in terms of story progression or character experiences. The Lion King follows its protagonist from birth to fatherhood, while Pocahontas is a few days’ worth of events. When characters die in The Lion King, it really means something – the character death in Pocahontas is a plot device and even those close to the character don’t seem bothered at all. And Simba learns a great deal over the course of his film – John Smith is such a sensitive soul that there’s no tension to be found there, and Pocahontas is such a perfect noble savage archetype that there’s no need for her to learn. Even when she’s set up to learn she shouldn’t be so reckless, it’s soon recklessness that makes her a heroine again. And nobody cares that someone ended up dead.
I don’t mind that the story is based only very loosely on reality – that’s fine for a Disney story, and honestly, the historical record is highly dubious anyway. Besides, an ending with Pocahontas marrying two other blokes, having a baby, going to London and dying wouldn’t be great for a kids’ movie, any more than Mulan should have killed herself, as she does in so many retellings of her story. It doesn’t even bother me that this is a movie so centred on white liberal guilt, with all the clichés of Native Americans being able to communicate with nature and the blundering idiotic Europeans happy to slaughter the savages for imagined gold. This version of Pocahontas is unlikely to end up happily working on a white man’s plantation and having his children, but that’s okay, because it’s only a story.
But the trouble is she’s hard to like and everything in the film is so shallow. We are introduced to Pocahontas as a tearaway rebel, enjoying putting herself and her animal sidekicks at risk by taking her canoe down rapids at every opportunity. She doesn’t end up dead, though, but meets dashing captain John Smith, likes how he interacts with her animals and so initiates a romance with him and teaches him to talk to a bad CG tree. Of course this is forbidden and ends in violence – which only she can put a stop to. And that’s about it for plot.
Visually, Disney did well here, though it falls short of most of the other Renaissance films. There are some beautiful shots of monumental trees and the sequence with the elder’s smoke is beautiful old-school Disney, forms shifting and changing like pink elephants. Pocahontas herself has a striking look that works very well, and the background characters are a mixture of modern and older Disney design, drawn with those grey lines they liked to use instead of black ones at the time. The music is a mixed bag, Alan Menken offering up an Oscar-winning song but little else of note, with the rest of the songs very lacking in structure and certainly not up there with his music for Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast, or reaching the same heights as the Zimmer/John themes in The Lion King. The voice acting is mixed too – Mel Gibson does surprisingly well with a wooden accent for a wooden character, but the bad guy has no presence. It’s odd to hear Christian Bale sounding so winsome in the wake of his Batman croaking, but works, and it’s nice to hear Billy Connolly, but partly because the main comic relief characters are mute animals, everything is rather one-note. Adequate, but nothing special.
That probably sums up the film as a whole. Adequate, with some standout parts, but overall mediocre. The fondest memory I’ll take it away from it will probably be a companion saying when he was very little, he thought that the song ‘savages’ was actually all about sandwiches.