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A Disney Reflection: Pocahontas

pocahontas-poster

By Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull.

As an unwritten rule, up until 1995, Disney stuck to fictional characters or popular legends, folktales or fairy tales (Aladdin, last month’s Sleeping Beauty and Robin Hood are but a few examples) when crafting their animations. Pocahontas broke this directive as the real historical character and background of the Native American woman who fell in love with an Englishman was used as a plot. It was quite a risk and it opened Pocahontas up to a slew of possible inaccuracies (the fact that the eponymous character’s name was not actually Pocahontas is a good case in point, though I won’t delve into some of the real clangers that pepper the film) but how does it fare despite the historical gaffes?

Plot-wise – and like most Disney films – things are relatively simple. Pocahontas is a Native American living a basic life with her tribe in the New World as well as her friends, the ravenous racoon Meeko and feisty hummingbird Flit. Things are already rocky before the Virginia Company dock, headed up by the corpulent, xenophobic Governor Ratcliffe, as Pocahontas is supposed to enter an arranged marriage with Kocoum, a deadpan warrior that doesn’t quite hit it off with Pocahontas. Emerging from the Virginia Company’s ship are a range of A-list actors: Billy Connolly, Christian Bale and Mel Gibson as the dashing John Smith. Smith can’t stay away from the beautiful ‘savage’ and the pair enter a Romeo and Juliet-like relationship while their worlds clash.

As a heroine, Pocahontas is straight-talking and wholly independent, disparate from former Disney leads who aren’t quite as bold figures as one would like. This idea was continued in one of the following animations, Mulan, which really established the mould for future Disney heroines – or ‘princesses’.

Governor Ratcliffe, like the majority of the cast is based on the real figure (though whether he was as ruthless as his onscreen counterpart is unknown), is an excellent villain and one of my favourites. He’s not evil for evil’s sake (Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty was villainous for no explicit reason; however, Disney made a poor decision in their muddled origin story by citing heartbreak) and is powered by greed and a lusting for wealth – and even the throne, as briefly mentioned in his villain’s song, “Mine, Mine, Mine”. I’ll admit, though, that his punishment is rather anticlimactic.

Looking at the music of Pocahontas I have so much to praise. The opening, wind-swept chanting of “The Virginia Company” is an excellent curtain-raiser, and I adore “Just Around The Riverbend”: one of Pocahontas’ first songs about longing for more than a simple lifestyle. The Oscar-winning “Colours of the Wind” is a sledgehammer pop ballad akin to the recent anthem, “Let It Go”, and incredibly catchy. In the musical stakes, Pocahontas is incredibly close to achieving perfection.

As a rule, I normally trust Rotten Tomatoes – the filmgoer’s friend and website that trawls reviews and affixes a percentage to a movie – but they’re completely inaccurate with Pocahontas. With a mark around the mid-fifties and a consensus that branded it as “bland, uninspired… uneven” and that supposedly has a “lack of fun”, I could not disagree more. Pocahontas might be low on comic relief (Meeko and Flit are fun but mute, meaning they’re not as funny as, say, the lively Timon and Pumbaa or the hilarious Genie of the Lamp before them) but it’s got a heart and some touching moments. I’ll agree it’s not one of Disney’s best efforts but it’s far from their worst.

While I’m here I thought I’d touch on the sequel to Pocahontas

Pocahontas II: Journey to A New World

As far as sequels go, Disney have never produced terrific follow-ups to their original films. Of course, there are exceptions like The Rescuers Down Under or the unexpectedly good The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea and Cinderella III: A Twist in Time but generally Disney haven’t been masters of the sequel. Pocahontas II is everything wrong with Disney sequels: a complete flop, and assuredly a film to pass on.

Things don’t go well for Pocahontas II: Journey to A New World even at the start. Pocahontas’ rich and warm landscape is blanketed in snow so it doesn’t feel like we’re with her tribe at all. To top this, she’s whisked off to Ye Olde London Towny after news that John Smith has died, and gawked at in the street. Her traditional lifestyle means there are many culture clash jokes and when she meets the handsome John Rolfe (a representative of the king) she becomes the Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins. The foul Governor Ratcliffe returns as the villain, persuading the king that Pocahontas is a savage but Rolfe defends her and says she’s as genteel as a member of the aristocracy. Naturally, there’s another twist and it turns that if Pocahontas is not presentable at a forthcoming ball then the king will launch a fleet of warships to obliterate Pocahontas’ tribe. The result is a ham-fisted, ever-so-slightly racist attempt at humour and is the bulk of the film. What’s worse is that John Rolfe and Pocahontas start to have romantic inclinations, completely ignoring her attachment to the ‘dead’ John Smith. To make matters worse, Pocahontas II finishes with an ending so appalling and completely belittling of the first, that it makes you gape at the screen.

Pocahontas verdict: 8/10
Pocahontas II: Journey to A New World
verdict: 2.5/10

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  • Cestler

    That was a good article, but I disagree with you a bit :/. I do agree with you that while Pocahontas was probably the weaker of the 90’s films, it was still pretty good, but about Pocahontas’ character…I don’t really agree with that. Pocahontas does do some pretty impressive stuff, but the problem is we really don’t know her as a character. She isn’t even that interesting. Also, Belle and Jasmine were pretty bold for me, since Belle is the first one to save her prince and Jasmine is basically a more like able version of Ariel.
    And about Ratcliffe, he’s pretty entertaining but as an excellent villain? …I don’t know. Yes, I will give him credit for being not motivated for the sake of evil, but…look at the next film. Hunchback of Note Dame. We get Frollo, a racist, overeligious judge who seriously believes he’s doing the right thing and is as ruthless as ruthless can be. I think he’s the better villain (I hope you’ll review that movie someday).

    • PK-S

      Ta! Well, each to their own, but I agree with you, I didn’t incorporate The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I referenced Disney’s golden era.

      I might do Hunchback but I’ve got quite a few before that.

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