Posted January 5, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives

Disney: Pocahontas

The Spice Girls were about to break through and conquer. Britney Spears is beginning to realize that there’s more to life than hopscotch. The year is 1995, and girl power is taking over the developed world. As usual, Disney is one step ahead of the game and the resulting feature is the epic adventure of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith. Whilst it was not as financially successful as its recent predecessors, Pocahontas was no less captivating, winning numerous awards including the traditional ‘Best Score’ and ‘Best Song’ Oscars (for ‘Colours of the Wind’).  Ever keen to pull the rabbit out of the hat, Disney were trying something new with this one: Pocahontas is based (albeit very loosely) on real events and real characters from history. Tackling one of America and Britain’s most controversial time periods is a task not for the faint of heart, and it’s remarkable that the outcome is not only empathetic and respectful, but also full of the classic Disney ‘must-haves’ which make each film that little bit more special.

Baring in mind the controversy surrounding Aladdin (the ‘cut off your hands’ line really was a no-brainer…) Disney were decidedly more tactful with Pocahontas. Whilst Princess Jasmine (and Aladdin) was heavily criticized for being ‘Americanized’ Pocahontas is strikingly beautiful and her physical characteristics are true to her own native-American culture. The whole tribe is depicted with the utmost respect and dignity, the leader of which, Chief Powhatan, is played with such a high degree of reverence and honour that the audience is on their side from the start. The true ‘savages’ of the film, the English, have only one thing on their minds with regard to their trip and it’s yellow and shiny. They are led by the pompous power/gold/food-hungry Governor Ratcliffe, the first Disney villain to be taken from history, albeit an amalgamation of different historical figures. Championing the take-over is Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson, in another English-hating film…), out for what he can get and never tiring of adventure.

Pocahontas is often criticized for being ‘no fun’. The comic duo of the film is Meeko and Flit, a racoon and hummingbird. Their antics are cute, but certainly nowhere near the levels of hilarity reached by Timon and Pumba or even Aladdin’s little monkey Aboo. And because of the intense, historically touchy subject of the film, opportunities for larking around are few and far between. Critics who would brush off the film for its lack of humour and label it not family friendly need a firm slap on the wrist!

In 1995 when the film was released I was but a wee nipper and yet more than the Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast or any other critically acclaimed Disney showstopper of recent years, Pocahontas reached out to me as a very important film. I may have only been five, but most little-ones have even a basic appreciation for what is history and what is make-believe, and the fact that the film is about a strong woman standing up for what she believe in is far more important to young children than fuzzy animals cracking jokes (although that’s not to say those things aren’t incredibly important too!). Children don’t automatically demand something to be sugar coated in order for it to be enjoyable or important and critics should hold off making assumptions based on their own experiences because they might just come back and slap them in the face in years to come [oh no she didun’h’].

But Pocahontas is not just a kiddies’ history documentary: people of all ages can and certainly do enjoy the film for its startling visual design. The lines which make up the animation are a lot straighter and bolder than they had been in recent films, particularly the swirling, Arabian Aladdin, and as a result everything is sturdier and has more physical presence. Pocahontas herself, whilst certainly very feminine and beautiful, has a strong square jaw and long, lean limbs which give her an athleticism and physical independence which hasn’t been present in a Disney heroine before. This creates some absolutely stunning juxtaposes with the softness of the nature surrounding her. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film takes place when Pocahontas and John Smith first meet. Smith is playing around with his gun (ahem) when almost out of the blue Pocahontas drops down onto a rock in front of him. The incredibly fleeting scene takes place at the bottom of the waterfall  and at the moment when Smith first looks up and notices her, Pocahontas is standing tall and proud, with the wind and mist swirling magically around her. Her piercing, dark eyes seem to tear through the fog straight off the screen and at that moment both Smith and the audience know that Pocahontas and her people are a force to reckon with.

The journey Pocahontas takes Smith on is an adventure beyond anything Smith planned on, and without even firing his gun (ahem)! It begins with the song which put Pocahontas on the Oscars chart, ‘Colours of the Wind’, courageously delivered by Judy Kuhn who provided Pocahontas’ singing voice. There are some absolutely stunning moments in the montage that takes place as she sings which are so powerful that I wouldn’t be so surprised if you were to reach for your windcheater; the wind almost seems to blow off the screen and into your living room and Pocahontas’ oneness with nature travels with it, leaving a long lasting impression and a shrunken desire to throw that spider lingering in the bathroom down the toilet.

The music is the icing on the cake of this film, particularly the songs sung by Pocahontas herself (although I can’t deny it’s great to hear Mel warbling away too). ‘Beyond the Riverbend’ is gutsy and adventurous and, as ‘Colours of the Wind’ evokes the air, truly does capture the freedom and unpredictability of the crashing waves and swelling current.

The film takes a drastic turn about half an hour before the end, when all the peace, tranquillity and discovery we had been enjoying suddenly erupts in the form of the two tribes preparing for war, no doubt with little hope of scoring more than a point. It’s up to Pocahontas to keep the peace and when the life of her beloved is threatened, rather than waiting for her fairy god-mother/anthropomorphic critter friends to sort things out for her she takes matters into her own hands, the whole scenario culminating in her throwing herself on top of John Smith in plain view of the Natives and English, just as he is about to be slaughtered. She demands that if her father wishes to kill him, he must first kill his own daughter and in the wake of this incredibly bold act of selflessness the guns are laid to rest on both sides, an example of true love conquering all if ever there was one.  To round off this less than traditional love story, Pocahontas elects to stay with her people rather than joining Smith back in the Old World and the two part company, never to lay eyes on one another again… Until Pocahontas II (but I suppose they didn’t know about that at the time).

Pocahontas is an incredibly deep film, more so than most other Disney films you could mention. It is about so much more than the trials and tribulations of friendship or dreams coming true; at its core is the very real situation everybody at some point finds themselves in when they must choose between two lifelines. Pocahontas strips this down to its most basic form, to the extent where the outcome rests on the settling of a spinning compass arrow to point her in the right direction, with a little help from the wind to steer her on the right course.

Dani Singer