One Liner Review:
This is a movie about two worlds and cultures that are at war with each other until a forbidden romance helps solve the problems. It’s hardly based on history, and there’s it’s not especially memorable, but in the moment, it’s entertaining and well-done.
Pocahontas is fine. It’s beautiful and scenic and the story keeps it moving along. But what’s there, in terms of story, isn’t especially deep or creative. Two people from opposite sides of an ongoing battle come together to form a romance and then try to get the people on each of their respective sides to see that they don’t need to be fighting with each other. Sometimes it’s more fun watching the dog and raccoon go at it with each other, for pure slapstick purposes, than it is watching our two protagonists. But truthfully, it’s not bad. There are some pretty decent songs here, and the montage where John Smith has a full transformation during the course of a single song is kind of funny. The villain does his job nicely and is even given some interesting back story. But most of the key relationships feel kind of cliched, like the one between Pocahontas and Cocoum, the man she is supposed to marry, but who is way too serious for her. The movie works because of its music, scenery, and pace, but the story could have definitely been a little sharper.
Pocahontas is the Disney animated movie that was the first one to come after the big four. What that means is that for a certain time period (the early nineties,) Disney was on a major roll, hitting us with one spectacle after another. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the Lion King. These movies were so great that they relaunched Walt Disney Animation Studios and brought them back to the eyes of the public. But Pocahontas in a sense was the one that dropped the ball. Not that the movie was bad, by any means, it just wasn’t up to the standard of those others. Ironically, it was meant to be the most serious and special of the bunch. And maybe that’s exactly what the problem was. This was the first movie that didn’t take place in a world of magic and spells and curses and fantasy (unless you count The Lion King, which was special for different reasons.) Perhaps the Lion King (which came out the year right before this one, in 1994,) set the way for moving away from fantasy. There’s no denying that the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin are all filled with mystical, magical elements. But the Lion King went in a new direction, (both Pocahontas and the Lion King were being developed at the same time, and the Lion King was seen by the executives, as the lesser movie, the throw away project when comparing the two.) After The Lion King, however, Disney probably thought they could do no wrong and everything they touched would turn to gold. And that’s when we got Pocahontas, the first movie to break the streak.
Pocahontas is also the first of these movies to be inspired by actual history. Of course they put a spin on the story, and changed quite a lot, which you can’t exactly blame them for. As fas as the real story goes, according the diaries of John Smith (the lead male protagonist in the movie,) Pocahontas did throw herself on top of Smith to save his life when the Native Americans were about to kill him. And so she did protect him. But that’s about it, as far as truth here. There was no romance between Smith and Pocahontas, and there was no happy ending either. Pocahontas was kidnapped and brought to England to be a representative of what a “good Native American,” could be. She was treated as a bit of a celebrity there, and met the Queen, but either way, this is very far from the story we get in this movie. And it’s understandable why Disney changed it. They made this into a story about a forbidden romance (like Romeo and Juliet,) and two warring sides, and the way that these two lovebirds end up bringing to light the reasons why these people should not be fighting with each other, and helping them make peace. It’s a simple story, but also a good one.
To get back to the magical elements for a moment, there are certainly some. Mainly in the old willow tree Grandmother, that Pocahontas talks to, and the ways that floating leaves are able to do way more than they really could. At one point the leaves surround the two characters and they can suddenly understand what the other is saying. This is one of the weaker moments in the movie, although it is meant to be more poetic than literal, with the Grandmother Willow Tree’s voice telling them, “Listen with your heart and you will understand.” In other words, they aren’t actually both speaking English and understanding each other, but they can listen to sounds and expression of the others words to get an idea of what the other one might be saying. It still comes off a little strange when Pochontas goes from speaking a Native American language to speaking perfect English. And it’s even more strange because she was speaking perfectl English to her fellow Native Americans, (including her best friend and father,) up until this point. One has to go with the idea that she was not really speaking English to them, but that the movie did this for us so that we could understand her, (instead of having to read subtitles – after all, this was meant in large part for kids.)
But the movie starts long before this, with the explorers and settlers in England getting ready to lunch their ship and head to the New World. There’s a song that opens the movie up and gives tons of exposition about the year, the Virginia Company (the company that is financing this voyage,) and what the men on the ship are doing there. They have been told that the new world is filled with gold. They have heard legends that the Spanish have come here and found it, and now it is their turn to get in on some of that. Of course the land they are referring to is actually Central America and South America, and while that is never actually said in this movie, it’s pretty clear when the men do arrive in North America, that there is no gold there, and that the whole thing was a giant mistake. Clear to everyone except the head villain, ,Governor Ratcliffe, anyway.
Speaking of that villain, he’s a pretty good character. In fact, he’s one of the better characters in the movie, with his dark purple outfit, his clear and simple goal, (get the gold!,) and his unwillingness to see any side other than his own. This character is first shown to us as he walks up the ramp to the ship in the background while a rat scurries up in the foreground, (get it, his name.) He is sneaky enough to tell his men how great he thinks they all are, and then crawl down to his chambers where he tells his assistant that he had to tell them all that to get them to dig up his gold for him. Here’s a guy who stands around chewing on a chicken bone while his men slave away digging in the dirt, mining for gold. And Ratcliffe even has some backstory, where apparently he’s a laughing stock back home who has had blunder after blunder, and how this voyage is his last chance to prove himself, and he knows it. All of it works.
After the ship leaves the docks of England, and we are briefly introduced to the characters, (John Smith -the great adventurer, voiced by Mel Gibson, and Thomas – the young innocent kid, voiced by Christian Bale,) we cut to night time and see the ship in a giant storm, out at sea. We follow the characters through dealing with this, trying to keep the cannon from going overboard and tying up the sails. When Thomas goes over himself, Smith jumps in to save him, making him instantly likable to the audience. Not long after this scene ends, the characters get a song by Ratcliffe telling them how great they are, and then John and Thomas stand on the deck of the ship, looking out and discussing this “New World.” John tells him he’s seen tons of “new worlds,” and this one won’t be any different. And then we start traveling away from the ship, through the fog, and eventually reach the land and Pocahontas. The music here, during this moment, is pretty great, and kind of mystical. It makes us excited for what’s to come on the other side of that fog.
And that takes us to North America, where we see a Native American tribe calling everybody who is out in the fields to come back in. The great Chief is returning home with all of his men, from the battle against another tribe that they have fought and won. There is a celebration to welcome them home, and the father says he sees everyone there but his daughter. This of course leads us to go off and find the wandering, exploring Pocahontas. Yes, this is very similar to our introduction to Ariel in The Little Mermaid, another defiant free spirited character. And that movie, of course, is also about forbidden love and two different worlds being brought together, Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story style. When we meet Pocahontas she is all by herself, (unless you count her two animal companions, a raccoon and a hummingbird.) Pocahontas finds the old Grandmother Willow Tree and tells her about a dream she had, with a spinning arrow. And Pocahontas sings her introduction song before her friend comes to get her and Pocahontas takes a massive dive over the edge of a waterfall.
The Englishmen arrive on the land and John Smith goes out exploring. He meets Pocahontas and starts spending some time with her. She can tell that he is kind and he can tell that she is friendly, but the real interesting part comes when he starts talking about how her people are “savages,” and how the Europeans have come here to make life better for them. He tells her that it’s not her fault, her and her people don’t know any better. He tells her the Englishmen will teach them how to build proper homes and live decent lives. All sorts of offensive things. And Pocahontas takes him on a journey through the woods, singing a song, and giving us a montage of opening his eyes up to the world of others and to new possibilities. Its amazing how Disney movies do this, giving us a single song that has the characters start off one way and end it another. Mulan is another one that did that, with the army being terribly unskilled at the start of the music montage and then finally figure it out by the end. Here, in Pocahontas, it’s much deeper. We’re literally talking about character arcs. The kinds that would take another movie the entire length of the film for a character to change, and here it happens during the course of a single song. That’s definitely something you can do in animation, that you could never do in a live action movie. Things just move much faster (characters move faster,) in animation.
After the Native Americans and Englishmen have a confrontation with each other that leads to an attack, it is clear that there will be bad blood between the two groups. Yet John Smith keeps sneaking out to see Pocahontas. And one time, Governor Ratcliffe sends Thomas out after him. This happens to be the same moment that the greatest Native American warrior, Cocoum (a man who has his heart set on Pocahontas, despite her not being interested in him,) comes across Smith and Pocahontas. Cocoum sees them together and attacks Smith. That prompts Thomas to fire on Cocoum, thinking he is helping Smith, and killing the Native American. When they hear other members of the tribe coming, Smith shouts at Thomas to get out of there, and then Smith takes the fall for what happened to Cocoum.
The end, of course is the conclusion and resolution of all of this, with Pocahontas helping to save the day. It’s a solid ending, where Smith gets the chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the Native Americans and doesn’t miss the opportunity to do so. And the Governor exposes himself for the real villain, leading to his punishment and downfall. Everything works smoothly here. A little too smoothly. It almost feels like this movie isn’t taking enough risk. Those fantastical movies that preceded this one all had elements of doubt, or uncertainty to whether the public would go for them. A movie about talking silverware (Beauty and the Beast? Or a movie where the protagonist’s best friends are a talking crab and fish? In Pocahontas, the animals don’t talk. They are there strictly for slapstick, and for the most part they work. But there’s nothing special about them, and there isn’t a whole lot special or memorable about this movie. It looks beautiful, and the songs are nice, but for the most part it just feels a little too simple and grounded. Especially when compared with those others.