Classic No. 33 Pocahontas (1995)

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‘I don’t want to jump to conclusions and get us all excited, but I think we’re definitely going to win’


‘Pocahontas, no points …’

Perhaps we are immediately being too harsh regarding Pocahontas, but of all of the films that we have seen so far, nothing quite sums a film up as well as this delightful series of Father Ted quotes. Pocahontas likely has the cockiest and most pretentious origin of all of the films we have seen so far in the canon. As we discussed in our previous review, Pocahontas was the Team A project to The Lion King’s B Project – the Home Run to The Lion King’s Base Hit – the one nearly all of the top animators wanted to work on – predicted to be the prestigious, Best Picture-winning ‘West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet meets Native Americans’, guaranteed hit. Result – B project, The Lion King became one of the highest grossing films of all time, while Pocahontas made about a third of what The Lion King made worldwide, made less than Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, and received mixed reviews. What went wrong for Pocahontas?

The Rescuers Down Under director, Mike Gabriel initially partnered up with veteran animator Joe Grant (he left Disney in 1949, but returned in 1989 to work on the Renaissance films – what a leap! The last time we spoke about Grant was in our Lady and the Tramp review). They initially worked on an adaptation of Swan Lake, but their outline was dismissed as ‘the most amateurish, worthless nothing. There is no movie here, no story’ – we have no idea who said that but we can most certainly hazard a guess. It’s a shame as there could have been potential in a Swan Lake film – especially if they’d run with the ballet and incorporated dance into it – that could have been exciting and risky.

But this happened instead, produced by Richard Rich, former Disney animator … 

So! Gabriel wracked his brains for other ideas, focusing mainly on American Wild West legends such as Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill and Pecos Bill …


Pit of Despair flashback!

However at the infamous Gong Show, Gabriel made Disney history as his pitch for Pocahontas was the quickest story turnaround in the studio’s history. He took a one-sheet colour image of Tiger Lily from Peter Pan, wrote ‘Walt Disney’s Pocahontas’ on the front, and on the back wrote, ‘an Indian princess who is torn between her father’s wishes to destroy the English settlers and her wishes to help them—a girl caught between her father and her people, and her love for the enemy’. At the time Peter Schneider had been very interested in an animated version of Romeo and Juliet (a West Side crossed with cats film was suggested at one stage …), so he really got on board with Gabriel’s idea: ‘We were particularly interested in exploring the theme of ‘If we don’t learn to live with one another, we will destroy ourselves’’.

Again, this was the project that the top animators wanted to work on, including star animator Glen Keane, who was assigned Pocahontas, and many fought to swap from The Lion King to Pocahontas. Eric Goldberg, supervising animator of the Genie, became Mike Gabriel’s Co-Director (inspired especially to work on the film by the 1992 LA Riots) and Tom Sito was appointed as Head of Story. Determined to be authentic (and likely trying hard to make up for the appalling representation of Native Americans in Peter Pan), they hired mainly Native American performers and employed Native American consultants. It all seemed very exciting as it would be Disney’s first ‘American’ story, the first to showcase a true historical figure and the first to have an interracial romance at the film’s heart.

So … what happened? Jeffrey Katzenberg really pushed for the film to be a sweeping romantic epic, even more so than Beauty and the Beast, to strive for a Best Picture win, likely also considering that Dances with Wolves won Best Picture in 1991, which features Native Americans. We imagine this was the mindset:

When you look at a creative project with ‘AWARD!’ in mind, it is very possible to be led astray. Katzenberg pushed for Pocahontas to be older (initially pitched as Pocahontas’s real age, 10-12), for there to be an adult relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith, and for the animals to be mute. Executive influence became so difficult that Goldberg worked under the pseudonym, Claude Raynes for Chuck Jones Productions, just to get a breather. Both he and Sito thought the film would be more cartoony, comic and broad but the ‘higher-ups wanted it more winsome, more gentle. Some of the folks were so concerned about political correctness …’ A specific example was when an executive took umbrage with the fact that Meeko was wearing a Spanish ruff, and Percy a feather, in a drawing by Joe Grant: ‘Animals don’t have the intelligence to switch their clothes! They don’t even have opposing thumbs’.

Despite their efforts to be authentic, story and character went off into a multitude of directions, and consequently prominent Native American activists issued an open letter condemning the film for its historical inaccuracies, and stereotyping of the Indian people. We’ll discuss this in Protagonist and Story.

What did we think of Pocahontas?


No … no we didn’t like that one. No we were a bit disappointed with that one to be honest. That wasn’t very good at all! You know we generally love Disney but that film was catastrophic!

Ok maybe that’s being a tad harsh, but we’ll be fair! Let’s dive in and analyse. But first, Original Trailer Time!

  • Somewhat bafflingly … we may have come across a trailer that is quite good! The epitome of the ‘trailer that makes the film look better than it actually is’
  • However we do still have ‘SHEEEEEE was the daughter of a chief’. You never fail to disappoint or amuse us Original Trailer Man
  • ‘No not that … way’ – cue the sounds of kids laughing … a lot (Special Note from Melissa: This is my own memory of seeing this trailer in the cinema)
  • The editing makes it look like Pocahontas’s dive had a butterfly effect, causing the storm to happen
  • ‘HEEEEEE was an explorer’
  • ‘Come taste the sun sweet berries’ – coupled with shots of CHERRIES! LIES!
  • Kokoum makes ‘bad smell’ face, which is backed up by Meeko going ‘Bleghhhhh’
  • ‘I think my dream is pointing me down another path’: Did Kokoum get erased from existence when she said that?
  • Love that changed the world? Erm no! Seriously, stop lying Original Trailer Man
  • Dangerously close to giving away the ending – ARGH!
  • ‘I love him Father’ / ‘BRAVO!’ Thanks for the support Wiggins
  • ‘Experience the adventure … until you can paint with all the colours of the wind’ at which point you can stop experiencing the adventure.



We normally don’t go into critics’ opinions this early in the game, but we felt the need to point this out. There is something that critics kept fixating on – it was the protagonist’s appearance:

‘Our heroine’s outfits sometimes make her look like Poca-Barbie’ (Peter Travers Rolling Stone)

‘Fathers across America will soon be volunteering in record numbers to take the children to the movies, and here’s why: Pocahontas is a babe. She’s the first Disney animated heroine since Tinker Bell with great legs — maybe with any legs. She wears form-fitting, off-the-shoulder buckskin that would be as much at home in Beverly Hills as in 17th-century Jamestown. She’s got sloe eyes, a rosebud mouth, billowing black hair and terrific muscle tone. And she is the centrepiece of a film that’s as great-looking as its heroine’ (Janet Maslin The New York Times)

‘Most jarring about the movie is how stunningly, flawlessly beautiful the two lovers are. The animators went for a physical perfection that would make the average supermodel stew with jealousy. You would expect Pocahontas (spoken by Native American Irene Bedard and sung by Judy Kuhn) to in some sense or other be an ethnic beauty, but she looks like a sculpted California girl with a deep tan and waist-length dark hair … I found their beauty a little disconcerting. Perhaps this movie will prevent racial prejudice in young children, but one prejudice it will reinforce is the presumed nobility of the beautiful’ (Barbara Shulgasser San Francisco Gate)

‘Pocahontas is pictured as a lithe, lovely girl some viewers may interpret as having a too-slender Barbie-doll look. It certainly isn’t the first time a “looker” was designated to characterize a person of plain appearance’ (Peter Stack San Francisco Gate)

‘She was 11 or 12 when the incident occurred, but for the purposes of the movie she’s been ripened a decade into the sexiest Disney heroine since Tinkerbell, and she’s been given a free spirit to match. Introduced in the quintessential Disney pose — alone atop a dizzying promontory — gazing out through almond eyes into the vastness below as the wind riffles her endless, dark tresses, the girl’s something to behold’ (Jeremy Gerard Variety)

‘The title character, who seems composed entirely of curves, is the most fascinating of all … she could easily star in her own “Thighs of Steel” video.’ (Desson Howe Washington Post)

‘Pocahontas splashes from the paint pots a fully ripened, aboriginal Barbie with waist-length, raven-black hair. Stacked and sturdy, she manages all manner of athletic feats while clad in a clingy, off-the-shoulder buckskin number’ (Rita Kempley Washington Post)

The critical response speaks volumes about how our leading lady was both presented and perceived. Jeffrey Katzenberg asked Glen Keane to create ‘the finest creature the human race has to offer’, while Keane said around the time of the release, ‘We’re doing a mature love story here, and we’ve got to draw her as such. She has to be sexy’.

This is the most we have ever seen a leading lady objectified. ‘She has to be sexy’. ‘The finest creature the human race has to offer’. ‘Barbie’. ‘Sexiest’. ‘Babe’. ‘Thighs of steel’. ‘Stacked’. ‘Something to behold’ … what has happened Disney?


Pocahontas was originally conceived, like the real historical figure, as a child of 10 to 12 with wisdom and strength beyond her years. However, Pocahontas got the Aladdin treatment, affecting Glen Keane again. While Aladdin was beefed up and aged up to satisfy the female gaze (from Michael J. Fox to Tom Cruise), Pocahontas was matured to appeal to the male gaze, and present a legitimate romance between her and John Smith (the ‘socially responsible’ rather than ‘accurate’ conundrum …). Pocahontas’s design was inspired by her live action model (a student with Filipina heritage), her voice actress, Native American, Irene Bedard, descendants of Pocahontas, Shirley ‘Little Dove’ Custalow-McGowan and Debbie White Dove, and supermodels … namely Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss to name a few. The real Pocahontas was apparently ‘not exactly a candidate for People’s “Most Beautiful” issue’.



This amalgamation of inspirations may be why Pocahontas doesn’t quite look Native American …


And in one scene looks like a completely different person in each shot … and looks like she’s posing for a 1990s photoshoot (especially in that last shot!)

While watching Pocahontas, we couldn’t help but compare Pocahontas herself with new Disney leading lady, Moana (Moana spoilers are coming, so skip ahead to the next paragraph if you’d rather not know!). We could discuss how strongly they compare (it’s extensive), but here’s the key point – compassion and peace is what they both advocate in the climax. However, imagine Moana no longer being a young teenager, but a woman in her twenties, and imagine Moana on her journey meets Maui, an attractive young-looking Demi-God, and they have a romantic relationship … the point being, one of the wonderful things about Moana, is that there is no romance between Moana and Maui, and yet there is still an engaging relationship between a young girl and a grown man that never feels inappropriate (which were, we imagine, the fears of the Pocahontas filmmakers). Pocahontas could have been a child, and there still could have been an engaging and dynamic relationship with John Smith without there needing to be a steamy romance (especially if John Smith had more character …).

Having Pocahontas be a mature young woman rather than a pre-teen or teenager immediately creates limitations for the character, as she is already confident and self-assured– she knows what there is to know about her homeland, and doesn’t show much interest in learning about the ways of the settlers, despite her character being set up to be curious! We have nothing against serious and mature main characters, but for Pocahontas, it makes no sense, as she is established as being put off a suitor because he’s ‘so serious’. Furthermore, the real Pocahontas’s name was not actually Pocahontas – that was her nickname, meaning ‘little mischief’ or ‘little playful one’, but this barely factors into her character at all (especially ‘little’ – she’s quite the opposite). Had she been a younger character there would have been a lot more creative scope for her characterisation, as well as her discoveries. There must have been a lot of changes to her character over time, as the early scenes present her as more playful and carefree – her daredevil dive into the water,  splashing and goofing around with her friend, and commenting on Kokoum’s comparative seriousness.

(Special Note from David: The wisecrack ‘I especially like his smile’ was the first and only joke she makes in the entire film)

Then comes the ‘Just Around the Riverbend’ sequence, which reveals the character at her liveliest – she demonstrates an affinity for the rivers, and proves to be a highly skilled and fearless canoeist, rowing gleefully towards a waterfall, and navigating her way through rapids.

This comic spirit never really reaches these heights again, as she spends the rest of the film being just like Kocoum: ‘So serious’. We attribute this partly to the filmmakers’ desire to remain respectful, and not to present the Powhatan tribe, in a manner that trivialised their values and customs, or risk Pocahontas being perceived as ‘savage’ in any way by audiences. She carries herself with dignity, grace and nobility (apart from when she bizarrely Catwomans around the place while stalking John Smith), which are very positive attributes, but does conflict somewhat with the notion of her being ‘little mischief’. She is presented as a graceful character – and it almost wouldn’t seem right to have her act in a foolish or playful manner – which came so naturally to other Disney leads of recent years.

Her spirited nature is highlighted more when she sings, as Judy Kuhn has such a powerful voice. Her dialogue in comparison with her vocal pipes, feel flat and acting stilted, despite being an animated character. Her face is very expressionless and her goals feel vague. She dreams of exciting possibilities that could be around the corner, not quite knowing what they are. It is the closest to Belle’s dreams, which were also vague, but even they had a stronger foundation, as we discover that Belle lives in a town where everyone thinks she is peculiar, she doesn’t fit in and she wants adventure away from her provincial life. What does Pocahontas want? What are her dreams? She has a ‘Robert Frost’ dilemma as she gazes at two paths – a smooth river or a twisty river – she chooses twisty, but ironically enough at the film’s end, she chooses to stay rather than have an adventure across the seas – which contradicts her choice to take the ‘river less travelled’ in life (we’ll discuss this more in Story).

There’s a lovely scene that was cut from Pocahontas which did a great job of revealing Pocahontas’s state of mind and establishing her situation. After having fun in the water, Pocahontas goes back to her people who are engaging in pre-wedding celebrations and are incredibly excited about a union between two key young people in the tribe – Pocahontas and Kokoum. It helped us to understand why she may have felt stifled in her fixed path and smothered by everyone around. Kokoum is equally excited about becoming her husband – he’d built her a ‘sturdy’ house, which he shows her with glee and gives the impression of being over-protective of his flighty fiancée. This sequence very naturally bleeds into ‘Just Around the Riverbend’ – such a short and impactful moment and yet on the cutting room floor … and yet we get plenty of filler in which Pocahontas talks about her spinning arrow dreams …


Argh even your dreams are dull

This is a ‘mystery’ and the ‘spinning arrow’ ends up leading her to her ‘path’ – essentially where the execution is taking place. Sorry to compare to Moana again (incoming SPOILER again!), but Moana comes to the realisation that the villain can be vanquished by compassion, on her own … without a dream telling her what to do. The ‘dream’ is such a half-baked idea and again, takes away some of Pocahontas’s own autonomy.

Choosing to make John Smith a love interest for Pocahontas, both muddies the story and her character. The potential is there! The idea of this young woman throwing herself in front of a man about to be executed is such a fantastic story concept, with possibilities abundant. Now, we love a good love story, but Pocahontas flinging herself across John because she loves him, rather than because executing him is wrong, somewhat dilutes the film’s message and her character. The idea that Pocahontas doesn’t have a personal agenda but she knows that this is not right, feels more powerful. But at the end of the day, we could have been on board with her romance, had there been chemistry between the couple and if they had exchanged engaging scenes … they don’t. Their chemistry is as flat as a sunken soufflé. So even that fails! They were trying hard to present Pocahontas as free-spirited and dynamic but it falls apart as soon as the romance comes into the narrative. Perhaps John Smith is so dull that he rubs off on her? He oozes so much boring that it’s infectious. Our protagonist in this film winds up conflicted between two dull men … great.

We love what Pocahontas represents on paper – a strong-willed free spirit, unafraid to take risks, who doesn’t follow the crowd, and ultimately stops an execution – this sounds brilliant. But how her character is represented on film, so frequently undermines these positive attributes – she becomes expressionless and bland – a beautiful objectified paragon who has been put on a pedestal, rather than a passionate force of nature which she should have been. An ‘exotic’ (sigh) model not an actor. Does ‘she has to be sexy’ sound cynical or truthful or both? The fact that Pocahontas had to be sexy may be root of this character’s problem, in a strange conjunction with not wishing to offend anyone.



In the DVD commentary for Pocahontas, criticism about Governor Ratcliffe came up. The response to that criticism – namely that he was not a memorable or interesting villain – was to say that he wasn’t really the villain, but that prejudice was the villain …

Why don’t we just say vanity was the villain in Snow White, naivety in Pinocchio, prejudice in Dumbo, violence in Bambi, abuse in Cinderella, one’s own brain in Alice in the Wonderland, mummy issues in Peter Pan, social class in Lady and the Tramp, snubbery in Sleeping Beauty, obsession in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, neglect in The Sword in the Stone, Peter Pan Syndrome in The Jungle Book, greed in The Aristocats, greed in Robin Hood, greed in The Rescuers (hmm what is with the 1970s and greed? …), prejudice in The Fox and the Hound, power in The Black Cauldron, power in Basil the Great Mouse Detective, greed in Oliver and Company, power in The Little Mermaid, greed in The Rescuers Down Under, narcissism in Beauty and the Beast, power in Aladdin, power in The Lion King

See … this is SILLY!

(Our own version of Seven Little Men Help a Girl)

(Greed and power have been rocking the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. We wonder why …)

Yes, it is possible to analyse a film and perceive a concept like prejudice or greed or vanity as the ‘villain’ or antagonistic presence driving a film, but it really shouldn’t be a means to justify why your actual villain was panned by the critics. Prejudice may be a ‘villain’, but Ratcliffe is still a two-dimensional antagonist who is not particularly entertaining or memorable, especially following on from the likes of Scar, Jafar. Ursula and Gaston. With those villains, aside from being entertaining, you could see where they were coming from – Ursula had fallen from grace, Gaston’s ego has been stroked all of his life, Jafar is working beneath a fool, and Scar is in the shadow of his older, more popular brother. Ratcliffe? His motivation is gold.

Ratcliffe always believes in his soul. He’s got the power to know. He’s indestructible

When he arrives, like the imperialist prick he is, Ratcliffe thrusts a massive flag down and marks the land as theirs.


Your colours of the wind cannot compete with FLAGS!

(A flag which isn’t even accurate …)

He has embarked on the expedition to new lands for personal gain and exploits the rest of the men to carry out endless (and pointless) manual labour. His immediate incentive is to find gold, which is shallow as a main objective, and as the film progresses his goal doesn’t really develop – he wants gold and he wants it NOW.

He treats the natives with immediate hostility and suspicion, there is no exposition or justification for this, he has simply decided that they are ‘heathens’ and will hear no counterargument. The unfortunately on the nose lyric in ‘Savages’: ‘They’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil’ distressingly sums up Ratcliffe’s attitude towards the natives very accurately – blind hostility. He also turns John Smith’s capture into the catalyst to launch an attack on the Powhatan tribe, exploiting people’s fear and anger and distorting the truth to bring everyone around to his way of thinking, and all because GOLD. But there is no gold …

He doesn’t believe reports that there is no gold, perceiving them as FALSE and LIES, because ‘They have it and they don’t want us to take it from them’.


And this man on the left clearly wants to EAT the gold

The trouble is that we don’t love to hate Ratcliffe – we just hate the guy. He’s awful and we felt ANNOYED. Initially he starts promisingly with deadpan humour. Brian Cox, Rupert Everett, Stephen Fry, and Patrick Stewart (again!) were considered to voice Ratcliffe, and in fact Richard White (of Gaston fame) was allegedly going to do it. However, the filmmakers thought White’s voice was too distinctive, so in the end they went with David Ogden Stiers (of Cogsworth fame) who was already voicing Wiggins. Ogden Stiers is doing the best he can do and has some deadpan zingers, but the material and the character design lets it down.

If ever there was a film in need of a show-stealing villain, this was it! He’s fine, but he is one of the least complex villains we have seen. A greedy twit, and we don’t know that much about him. They came close with one moment when it revealed Ratcliffe’s terror that they hadn’t found any gold. If they had emphasised this pressure that Ratcliffe is under more, it would have given a stronger motivation than just ‘I want gold so I’ll be rewarded’.

And overthrow the King it would seem …  unlike The Lion King you are not next in line, and this isn’t Mermaid or Aladdin, no magic will help you overthrow! Unless Ratcliffe is planning on taking magic leaves back with him …

If his motivation came from pressure, rather than pure greed, it may have been more interesting – consider a character like Rawls in The Wire for example. You initially hate him, but you slowly see where he’s coming from. Even more intriguing, what if Ratcliffe slowly realises that there is no gold at all, he knows he’ll be screwed, and to shift the blame and focus off himself, he construes a scenario that the natives must have it, even though he knows they don’t. That would have been sinister and tactical instead of the result of blind stupidity – a strategic, desperate move. On the flip side, why have a big bad villain at all? Why not treat both sides the same? What if initially it starts well, with the natives welcoming the ‘visitors’, and something goes wrong (perhaps leading into someone getting hurt) – there could have been a leaders’ negotiation scene between the two sides, laying down terms, and it goes sour, and eventually becoming violent with prejudice and misunderstanding between both sides mounting high. Instead we have ‘WAHHH GOLD AND GLITTER!!!’ – one greedy man and a patronising over-simplification of the conflict.

Ratcliffe is at his most effective in quieter scenes, feeling like a lead-up into a character like Frollo. When he undermines Thomas, it is incredibly effective, because it feels truthful and it is reminiscent of horribly sinister characters like Lady Tremaine. The trouble with Ratcliffe is that he is inconsistently played – his massive tantrums don’t ring true and feel ridiculously over-the-top and gung-ho. It’s a very black and white portrayal of a ‘settler’. He is like media spin doctoring rolled up into one man – it makes you angry and annoyed (because he’s so stupid and won’t LISTEN!), but you don’t believe him as a character. It is very simply all thrown onto one man, and sadly this conflict in reality was not the result of a greedy individual, who can easily be rolled up into a boat and silenced …

Another problem with Ratcliffe is that he has no connection with our protagonist. They do not exchange any words, and when you consider many of the relationships between heroes and villains in the canon, they have been gripping. In a nutshell, Ratcliffe is technically ‘fine’, but if being critical, he’s unimaginative, inconsistent, 2D and doesn’t measure up to some fantastic villains we’ve had. In our book, he’s in with Sykes and Macleach in terms of calibre of villain – not great. It is a shame as there could have been opportunities, but they were not embraced – likely due to the film’s inconsistent tone – do you want a comic villain like Prince John on one end or a sinister villain like Lady Tremaine on the other or somewhere in between like the villains of the Renaissance musicals? Nothing was decided and that’s why he’s a flat villain in our book.

Supporting Cast


John Smith … what can we say?

John Smith, like Pocahontas also received the critical objectification, emphasising his appearance, rather than his character:

‘With his waist-length blond tresses and his impertinent pecs, Smith (Mel Gibson) might as well be the Fabio of the early 17th century’ (Washington Post) waist-length? Did we watch the same film?

‘John Smith could be a Muscle Beach life guard with his mussed blond hair, excellent teeth, sharp jawline and inverted pyramid figure’ (San Francisco Gate)

‘Smith is a less convincing creature. Forget that the original was a swarthy, bearded mercenary who’d fought in a dozen forgotten European wars; this clean-limbed blond boy looks as if he’s a chrome hood ornament on the 1938 Nazi Aryanmobile. His face just isn’t very interesting’ (Baltimore Sun)

‘His face just isn’t very interesting’ – good start. John Smith is probably the least interesting character in the whole film, not just in terms of characterisation, but also with regards to performance. It is fairly clear that the accolade of appearing in a Disney animated classic really didn’t mean much to Mel Gibson – and so much of his performance is dull and unmemorable.

(Special Note from David: There is a really lovely short interview with Barrie Ingham and Val Bettin during production of Basil the Great Mouse Detective where the two actors talk about growing up watching Disney films, and how exciting it is to be a part of something with such a rich legacy – with Mel Gibson there’s none of that, it’s clearly just another job to him)


Plus we have another bone to pick with this film, why is John Smith, an English settler, American? This doesn’t even make sense as Mel Gibson is Australian, but the accent is American.

(Special Note from Melissa: Cary Elwes kept popping into my mind as a perfect John Smith while watching the film. Supervising Animator, John Pomeroy was inspired by Errol Flynn in the creation of the John Smith character. Elwes was described as a ringer for Errol Flynn … he WAS RIGHT THERE! Why didn’t you use him?)


‘I’d rather die tomorrow than live 100 years without knowing you’

We found out later that Sean Bean was strongly considered for John Smith.

Even more perfect for John Smith!!! Especially if he were a rugged, shadier type closer to the historical figure, as opposed to a fair-haired Greek God


Strike that. ‘Attempt’ at a ‘Greek God’ but not successful. Yikes. Seriously Errol Flynn?


THIS is Errol Flynn


We have no idea what that is

In the end, they decided against it as America would not be satisfied and needed a NAME. Clearly, there was no faith in a British leading man in the early 1990s.


How times have changed in over twenty years …

Moving onto his actual character …

… and there is a great deal of shaky territory which is strategically tiptoed around once the main drama commences. When John Smith is introduced, his shipmates are talking about what a prolific adventurer he is, and how he’s killed loads of foreigners. This is something that does not come up again later on, although it does mean that John’s line to Pocahontas about bringing civilisation to many different lands, has troubling implications.

John Smith’s dark past, wherein he has blithely slaughtered the native peoples of multiple countries is not the most endearing trait for a leading man, but rather than confess and atone for any past wrongdoings, a different approach is taken instead: they just don’t talk about it. Basically, he sees Pocahontas, is so mesmerised by her appearance that he puts down his gun, and is a changed man from that moment onwards.

(Special Note from David: The quickest reformation since ‘Come to think of it O’Malley you’re not a cat you’re a rat’)

He says earlier to Thomas, ‘I’ve seen hundreds of new worlds … what could possibly be different about this one?’ – according to this film there is a smoking hot woman, so that makes it different. To that logic, the other new worlds had no hot people.


What a burn to those hundreds of other new worlds …

John Smith, once he can speak to Pocahontas, proceeds in being patronising – very patronising.

But don’t worry, Pocahontas is patronising right back.

He is the voice of ‘benevolent prejudice’ in this idea that they’ve improved the lives of savages, which immediately blows into ‘not that you’re a savage’ territory. And he just keeps digging – diggity dig.

John Smith is a big dull dud and he could have been a sharp-tongued, witty, rugged swashbuckler. He could have been up there with Robin Hood.

(Special Note from Melissa: Ohh Brian Bedford voicing John Smith is another possibility! Even off the top of our heads we can give suggestions, considering the time period: Cary Elwes, Sean Bean, Kenneth Branagh, Hugh Grant, Daniel Day-Lewis, etc. So many other options! Why Mel Gibson???)

It is as if we are endlessly repeating ourselves – John Smith, like Pocahontas and Ratcliffe, does not meet the potential that he could have achieved. He is supposed to be adventurous and engrossed in the land, and they say that he is, but he is so dully performed and animated, that we can’t believe that. On paper, he sounds great, but in reality, he’s not. We should care about him, but we don’t. Take the occasional lovely line like this: ‘Pocahontas, look at me, I’d rather die tomorrow than live 100 years without knowing you.’ Didn’t shed a tear because it is delivered so blandly. Shame. Even when he sacrifices himself, there was no ‘Oh no!’ from us:


Mainly giggles due to how hilarious these slow motion shots are

Here’s a little fact: Mel Gibson was considered for Tim Burton’s Batman but was turned down. Christian Bale, who voiced his protégé, Thomas, Christian Bale will end up playing Batman in Christopher’s Nolan’s Batman franchise. So Thomas wins in the end!


Speaking of Thomas … Thomas is the one who has the coming-of-age story (perhaps a little more familiar to Disney?); he is introduced as naive, green, ill-equipped for this ‘adventure’ and lacks confidence in himself. Constantly belittled by Ratcliffe, he is the Neville Longbottom of this journey. His life is saved by John at sea, and there is this constant filmic question of ‘Will he return the favour?’ at some point in the running time. He does – he shoots Kocoum, ironically after being shown how to use a gun by John, when the latter is being attacked by the former. However, once it has happened, despite the fact that he was saving his friend’s life, he still feels ashamed and horrified by what he has done, as he truly experiences death for the first time – there’s some terrific facial animation from Thomas, which must have been challenging due to the particular style of human animation in Pocahontas. In a way, Thomas could have been a more interesting character for Pocahontas to have had any kind of liaison with (had Pocahontas been younger). Pocahontas is set up to give the impression that this story will be told through Thomas’s eyes. Thomas could have projected propaganda he has heard, because if John has been to ‘new worlds’, shouldn’t he really know better? Someone like Thomas who has only heard stories may have been more naive and had a lot more to learn…

He comes into his own towards the end, standing up to Ratcliffe and taking on more of a leadership role – blossoming from a boy into a man. But just like the way that Neville is not the protagonist in the literary world, Thomas is not in Pocahontas … Not buff enough we presume; it does seem to be the way of the Renaissance films. But credit to Thomas, he actually has an English accent – points over John!

His only evidence of awful leadership is his call for the wounded John to head back to England – ‘He’ll die if he stays here’. We’re not medical experts, but it is a long journey … if it’s so serious that he’ll die if he stays, it’s super likely that he’ll expire on the way back, as that is a long journey.


(Special Note from Melissa: Love how happy Thomas is that Ratcliffe appears to be dancing with him – it’s hilariously naff)


The other two named settlers are fine. There is not much to say about them. Billy Connelly has such a distinctive voice that it is impossible not to think of him, and yet the character is very plainly conceived. Apparently, this character initially looked more like Connelly, rougher and hairier around the edges and he had more of a ‘comic’ look. They were concerned that it would be too cartoony, so he had the Kocoum treatment and was ‘so serious-d’ up, drawn to look more ‘realistic’. They seemed to regret this in the commentary, as he is not as distinctive looking and audiences thought Billy’s character was going to be revealed as a villain. And at the end, we get the most basic of basic, ‘They don’t want to fight’ – if only every conflict could be resolved that easily …


When we finished watching Pocahontas, we both agreed that we like Wiggins, but we both couldn’t remember his name; one of us called him Jenkins and the other ‘Man with brolly’. It does not bode well that a character whose name we forgot was one of our favourite characters, but he really was. A comic side character, he has genuinely funny lines and has great energy – Wiggins reminds us of an actor who is the only one trying really hard in a play, and the rest of the cast aren’t even trying.

 (Special Note from Both: Don’t get us wrong, not every joke lands … but he tries!)

Sadly, aside from having a considerable share of the film’s best lines –



– there isn’t a great deal to his character, as he mainly serves as a yes-man to Ratcliffe. But David Ogden Stiers does a great job with this small role. Originally Ratcliffe had two man-servants called Putney and Chutney … imagining them to look like the Chuckle Brothers.


Chief Powhatan epitomises the filmmakers’ desire to be respectful, and sadly he too falls into the dull paragon category, especially when you consider Disney Dads we’ve had before. Voiced by Russell Means, an Oglala Lakota activist for Native American rights (and also a consultant for the film), Means perceived the film as a catalyst for change, as the film showed the settlers in a negative light (‘the real reason the Europeans came over here in the first place was to rob, rape and pillage the land’ and ‘Disney is entrusting children with the truth, something Hollywood has never done with the adults’). We forget who, but one of the filmmakers described Pocahontas as a father daughter story.


Pocahontas may be many things but ‘father daughter story’ was not at the top of our list. The Little Mermaid was a father daughter story, just like The Lion King was a father son story. It has father daughter moments but it is not the crux of the film, and to be honest, with the exception of the climax, the father-daughter moments are a little limp. It is a very stilted performance, like John Smith. It reminds us that there may be still a difficulty with animating men who are not cartoony, but also there is that need to not be offensive, meaning that a character like this can wind up a tad bland.


Seeing a female protagonist with a female best friend is a breath of fresh air as we do not get that enough in Disney films, and it begins really well, with a very playful, sisterly relationship being established. However, Nakoma from that moment becomes a plot device, only there when ‘needed’, as she tries to convince Pocahontas not to turn her back on her own people and she’s the one who sends Kocoum after Pocahontas, leading to his death. Again, this is another case of not being developed as much as she could have been, which is a loss as there are so few close female relationships in animated films.

The Powhatan people are fantastically set up, with some great interactions that show more passion than the leading roles, e.g. The woman who leaps upon her husband as he has come home from war – that put such a smile on our faces. Sadly, we do not get to see much of these ‘background’ characters. Again coming back to that deleted scene in which the locals are getting excited preparing for Pocahontas and Kocoum’s wedding feast – they show so much personality in one tiny work-in-progress scene, and so does Kocoum – he got the shaft in many respects:



‘Damn I was going for thoughtful …’

‘So serious’ Kocoum lives up to that description and he’s so inconsequential and bland that we didn’t feel sad when he dies. Originally, Kocoum in that little deleted scene was set up as an over-excited traditionalist who has quite literally built Pocahontas a house with sturdy walls, which she refers to in ‘Just Around the Riverbend’. He worries about her and doesn’t want her to take too many risks, which she finds stifling. Instead they took this out and left him as a brooding silent type, and they barely exchange dialogue. Also when Kocoum does speak for the first time, it was not the voice we were expecting and our first thought was ‘Err don’t give Kocoum any more lines’ – such a stilted performance that doesn’t sound like a Hector-like warrior.

There is also the death of Kocoum, which should be a highly dramatic moment which has a major emotional impact – but it falls completely flat. Kocoum does not have particularly strong emotional connections to the main characters, or the audience, and the fight between himself and John Smith was clearly instigated by him, and Thomas actually saves John’s life by shooting Kocoum – which effectively means that he is to blame.




Also did Thomas even shoot him? There are no wounds ANYWHERE … Was the unfamiliar sound of the gunshot so startling that it literally frightened the life out of him?

Cleverly enough, Kocoum’s death was foreshadowed in the smoke early in the film – he was clearly marked for death, but he misreads it as his duty to charge forward.


‘You’re gonna die Kocoum!’


And get ravaged by a direwolf?

The death is significantly less impactful than its counterpart moments – the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet, or Riff and Bernardo in West Side Story. The moment also falls flat when compared with the death of Mufasa in The Lion King. The Pocahontas team apparently were very excited about their bold decision to kill off a central character … trouble is the B-team also did it and they did it better – what an anti-climax for the A-team. Mufasa’s death happens after a hugely dramatic sequence, and he is a character that the audience cares so much about. Mufasa was also a consistent presence in the film after his death, whereas Kocoum is barely mentioned by anyone after his death. It’s not enough to simply tell us we should be sad. Plus, Pocahontas’s primary concern after his death is ‘I’ll never see John Smith again’.


‘Alas poor Kocoum … I never knew him Horatio’

(Special note from Melissa: It really puts the song ‘If I Never Knew You’ into perspective …)

Grandmother Willow … is terrifying:


Let’s start again: Grandmother Willow is a problematic character; the film tries to take a more serious and realistic approach to storytelling than its predecessors, and wants to pay respect to the Powhatan tribe – so bringing in a magical character seems to undermine this. It also undermines the glory of the natural wonder of the native land, which is the main focus of the ‘Colours of the Wind’ sequence. Nevertheless, she is a character who would have probably benefited from being a more serious presence.

(Special Note from David: An odd request for a film when almost every character is super-serious)

Initially, the character was written as a male figure called ‘Old Man River’… yes really. Gregory Peck was offered the role, but he turned it down because he felt that Pocahontas needed a maternal figure to turn to for advice. Joe Grant was super keen on the idea of a grandmotherly tree, but guess what? Jeffrey ‘Eighty-Six the Mom’ Katzenberg wanted to get rid of Grandmother Willow because she ‘was ordinary and unfunny’ (we’re now imagining: ‘EIGHTY-SIX THE GRAND-MOM TREE!’). Katzenberg only liked her when Burny Mattinson put some terrible tree puns in for her, such as ‘My bark is worse than my bite’ …


These owls might be the best characters in the film

She should be character of great reverence and dignity, who imparts rare wisdom to those who seek it. Instead she is given some moments of awkward comic relief, which don’t really work. Pointing out that John Smith is handsome is a strange inclusion – likely done for laughs – not least because she is a tree, but also because someone’s physical appearance really shouldn’t be important to an eternal, non-human entity. The character might have been more effective (and less problematic) if she had been a human grandmother – the wisecracks would not have seemed too awkward, and the line about John Smith being handsome would have been less odd and a bit sweeter. The willow tree idea could have also been used, but in a more intelligent manner, perhaps as a non-speaking deity from whom the natives pray for wisdom and guidance. However, one of the best things about Grandmother Willow is that she sounds hilariously insincere, and we don’t know whether that was the intention or not – it is the voice Linda Hunt does in everything – a great voice but the same voice. We must say, for some mad reason, after meeting John Smith and screwing around with the two settlers, Grandmother Willow says ‘Well, I haven’t had this much excitement in 200 years’ … Really?

No wonder this film is so tedious!

Originally, the animals talked, with John Candy voicing a turkey named Redfeather (Oh please please don’t make Candy voice another annoying bird!and Richard E. Grant voicing Percy the Pug.

Now THAT’S a Percy we can get behind

However, in eagerness to win awards and be taken more seriously, the decision was made to make the animals mute – an ‘executive’ decision so to speak. Redfeather was thrown in the bin as so much of his character relied on the personality given by Candy, who had sadly passed away. Joe Grant drew a concept sketch of a hair-plaiting raccoon, which would be animated by Glen Keane:

The directors loved the idea and having a raccoon character became even more appealing as they were ‘naturally enigmatic because they have little hands and a little mask over their face like a thief’ (Tom Sito).


We hear raccoon, we hear thief, we immediately think of this. Wouldn’t put it past Meeko to steal Phoebe’s muffin

On our first viewing of Pocahontas, we barely noticed the animal characters because they felt so redundant as they kept interrupting the film, as if the team had no faith in the material.


Seriously no faith in the actual scene taking place

But more on that in Story. However on a second viewing, we suddenly became aware at how effectively animated Meeko is, and we were delighted to see that Nik Ranieri won an Annie Award for his work on that character. From what we’ve seen from Ranieri, he’s great at animating characters with a glint in their eye or a scheming/mischievous disposition with humour – not only Meeko, but Lumiere, and he also animated some of Ursula and Jafar’s sequences. He said that he based Meeko partly on himself, and that’s what makes it work so well.

(Special Note from Melissa: Despite the fact that he and the animals keep interrupting the flow, he’s just so cute and amusingly animated! A bright spark. Didn’t notice at all the first time)

Meeko is the standout animal character, whereas Percy the Pug is not as engaging – he’s fine but not as endearing as Meeko. It is a bit bizarre that a film which features both a pug and a raccoon, it is a raccoon who is the cutest. How can you have a pug character, and it not be sweet?

Plus they’re naturally cartoony looking dogs!

Flit is even less relevant than Meeko and Percy. He’s just … there. He’s playing the role of Pocahontas’s bodyguard, always suspicious of John Smith’s intentions with his ‘not-daughter’, which is a fun idea, but he’s so inconsequential. He could have easily have been cut out and it wouldn’t have affected the story.

You can see a Cogsworth/Lumiere type relationship here though

Artwork and Imagery

An edge that Pocahontas has over its Renaissance counterparts is that it may be the best looking of all of them in many respects, particularly concerning its backgrounds and effects. Michael Giaimo (Art Director), Rasoul Azadani (Layout Supervisor) and Cristy Maltese (Background Supervisor)’s talents (among everyone who worked on the backgrounds!) created one beautiful looking film that is very reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty, which Walt considered to be his animated masterpiece. Pocahontas was perceived by animators as being one of the hardest films ever produced by the studio – it was in production for five years – also like Sleeping Beauty! Creativity with scale is what makes it a truly striking looking film.


We must point out however … A team Pocahontas has the most underwhelming opening image … ever. Not great considering that B team created the most iconic opening image in Disney’s canon.

Bravo B Team

They actually right-ed another wrong from Peter Pan. Going back many reviews ago, Peter Pan’s vision of London was magnificent, while Neverland looked as dull as dishwater. This time, England looks bland, and the ‘New World’ looks gloriously spectacular. There is a serious problem though … two actually. Firstly, when we’re seeing these beautiful shots for the first time, they are constantly getting obscured by the credits, and secondly, there is such intensified continuity in the film, with shots quickly cutting away (which we’ll come back to in Story), that we barely get to see the backgrounds – ARGH!

The ‘Colours of the Wind’ sequence is when it goes full-blown ‘ART’ on us, and it does look visually wonderful. It makes us wonder whether they could have been brave and made more of the film stylistically look like that sequence …

However, despite the backgrounds, effects and use of scale being spectacular, we have a another bone to pick. The human characters, we’re sorry to say, don’t always look great. They’ve done a bold and admirable move by trying to push for a character style that is different from what has come before. It is close to the way in which the Sleeping Beauty characters were animated, in which eyes are smaller and faces and body shapes are more angular. Ultimately the characters are less cartoony, with the exception of the animals and a character like Wiggins. One of the biggest problems with the human characters, particularly with the main characters, is that they’re not very expressive, which consequently means, we struggle to relate and empathise with them.


So dead behind the eyes …

We don’t know what happened here, but it is also the first time that we noticed lip-syncing to be a little off in a Disney film, like it was a foreign film being dubbed into English at times. It was quite distracting and felt unpolished for Disney’s standards.


Some might say that’s real sloppy …

By the way, Team A and B, you both did slow-motion … please stop it. It looks silly. Even in live action films it generally looks silly. So stop it NOW.


Songs! Alan Menken has a new collaborator, Stephen Schwartz. This is an interesting choice, as Menken’s previous collaborators, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, were and are primarily lyricists. Schwartz is both a composer and a lyricist, Menken had been dabbling in lyrics as well and we get the impression from archival footage that it may have been a challenging collaboration in terms of creative differences – having two composers in a team, but each assigned to just one area – conflict was inevitable. Menken said that while they found a working strategy, there was tension as they apparently both wanted to be at the keyboard.

Pocahontas opens with a military drumbeat, offering potential excitement, only to become the opening number, ‘The Virginia Company’ – the leit motif for the settlers. Later when we reach Virginia, the natives’ leit motif, ‘Steady as the Beating Drum’ kicks in, also preceded by a great drum beat, as well as a woodwind drone. Both songs start promisingly with these openings, but ultimately both songs wind up being somewhat monotonous numbers that don’t go anywhere. Not ideal for your film’s beginning! The first song is a march, and to be blunt, it sounds dull, the lyrics are clunky and the diction is off. Plus they are singing for ‘Glory God and Gold’ … which is a phrase more strongly associated with Spanish settlers than English. The second song is better than the first in that it’s more pleasant and has a little more creativity and colour. It’s when the English lyrics come in that it loses its spark for some reason. Both songs are reprised numerous times throughout the film, to act as opposing musical narratives. Overall, they both sound like songs you’d learn on a recorder in primary school. The songs equate this feeling in our minds:


Jim Cummings is singing on behalf of Russell Means in the ‘Steady as the Beating Drum Reprise’. The song is pleasant, but Chief Powhatan clearly couldn’t be bothered to carry on singing and just wanders off. Are we not going to follow up on that Powhatan?

‘Just Around the Riverbend’ is a counter-argument to that reprise – Pocahontas clearly wins it, as it is a better song (and rivers are not steady!) – shame Powhatan wandered off. It is a beautiful song, sung powerfully and tenderly by Broadway performer, Judy Kuhn. It does have the Disney magic in its lead in. It’s the film’s ‘I want’ song as Pocahontas expresses her desire to explore the unknown, while her community are content with a ‘steady’ way of life, expressed in the metaphor of two rivers – one steady, the other unsteady or ‘less travelled by’. She takes the ‘one less travelled by’ (back to that later). Lyrically it’s very relatable, and the instrumentation is Alan Menken at his best. We do wish that Pocahontas had the spirit that she bears when she sings – it’s when she is her most powerful. The song does remind us that Stephen Schwartz loves to cram as many syllables into lines as possible – it’s very distinctive.

(Special Note from Melissa: When watching the film, I sang the syllable-crammed opening line ‘What I love most about rivers is …’ before it was sung, and David thought I was making it up. He couldn’t believe it was a real lyric)

‘Mine Mine Mine’ and ‘Savages’ are the closest the film comes to villain songs. ‘Mine Mine Mine’ is enjoyable to an extent but it is not quite a villain song, and not quite a comic number – so ‘Meh Meh Meh’ may be a more appropriate title. The emphasis on the glory of reward makes us wonder if Schwartz was having a pop at all those interfering executives. We can imagine how those meetings went …


Awards … mountains of them!

No Katzenberg you can’t have an award – WHY NOT!!??

It never kicks into high gear, but consistently runs at the same pace. David Ogden Stiers is doing the best that he can do – acting the song in a patter style rather than singing. Funnily enough, the song reminded us of  ‘Angel of Music’ from Phantom of the Opera. It lacks a certain punch; it doesn’t have the hilarity of ‘Gaston’, the wit of ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ or the revelry of ‘Prince Ali (Reprise). Credit where credit is due, layering different songs across each other is a new move for Disney, as John sings about how awesome the land is, while Ratcliffe sings about glory.

‘Colours of the Wind’ is Pocahontas’s ‘Circle of Life’ – its spiritual sibling – as it is not only one of its star sequences, but both were used as teaser trailers to market the film. ‘Colours of the Wind’ like ‘Just Around the Riverbend’ is one of the film’s strongest songs, mainly due to how beautiful Kuhn’s voice is and Menken’s orchestrations are. It is a melancholic number, stressing a familiar message sourced from the fact that the environmental agenda was being pushed hard in the 1990s, particularly in family entertainment. It emphasises anti-violence and the vitality of communing with nature – as well as showing the ‘ignorant settler’ that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does.

There are some lovely lyrics, but at times, it can be lyrically dubious, e.g. Schwartz wrote, ‘I feel somewhat guilty to have to tell you that the phrase ‘blue corn moon’ has no actual meaning in Indian lore … I made it up because I liked the sound of it’. Even colours of the wind in itself – is it an abstract lyric or does it just sound nice? Does that undermine the song, or does it just mean, it’s more open to interpretation? ‘Colours of the Wind’ was written and created incredibly early in the process, and again while lovely, it makes sense why it seems a little vague – it was created in pre-development days. Lyrics like ‘If you cut it down’ makes it seem as though Pocahontas has seen the destruction – she hasn’t – it is likely that she did in the early stages of the film. ‘Colours of the Wind’ is treated with reverence and the message is a didactic one which borders on preachy. It has Oscar-bait written all over it and is so caught up in being an ‘important’ song, but it sounds beautiful and it looks beautiful. It is a showcase sequence.

‘Savages’ is infused with nasty lyrics that has the sound of horrible tabloid press all over it – vile ‘othering’ statements, riling up mob mentality and hatred. The song ended up being censored before even hitting cinemas, as some lyrics were deemed inappropriate. However, this does not negate the goofiness of lines like ‘They’re not like you and me which means they must be evil’ and ‘They’re different from us, which means they can’t be trusted’ … Schwartz, just never say ‘which means’ – WE GET IT. This is the third mob song we’ve had in the Renaissance – ‘Mob Song’, ‘Be Prepared’ and now ‘Savages’. What was the state of play in the 1990s to warrant three mob songs in a row? It is closer to a villain song than ‘Mine Mine Mine’, and the fact that both sides are singing the song is effective. The song builds on tension, building and building in its layering, sounding very impressive when both sides and Pocahontas are singing in the climatic crescendo. The layering is very reminiscent of Les Miserables and West Side Story (particularly reflecting ‘Tonight Quintet’ in this instance). It follows the ‘Colours of the Wind’ pattern of eagerness to be ‘important’ riding on it. Though we must say, try singing ‘Lovely Ladies’ from Les Miserables and the ‘Oompa Loompa Song’ from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory while singing ‘Savages’ – their choruses hilariously sync up, as well as when Pocahontas enters the number.

(Special Note from Melissa: As a child I thought the word ‘Savage’ sounded like ‘Sandwich’ … now I’m just thinking, ‘Sandwiches! Sandwiches! Barely even human!!!!)

‘If I Never Knew You’ apparently was particularly liked by adult viewers in test screenings, but kids found it boring, so it got the boot … of course.

(Special Note from David: Come on guys, kids are going to bored anyway by this stage, you might as well keep it in)

It was reinstated for the 10th anniversary DVD, hence why we’re considering it. It is a lovely song, lyrically and melodically, that could really move you in the right hands. However, from an acting point-of-view, it is sung very flatly by Mel Gibson. Also if you don’t want to draw attention to the massive differences in singing ability, don’t have them sing a duet! Kuhn blows Gibson out of the water with her pipes. Nevertheless, taking it out of the film is a loss because it is used so heavily in the underscore (and beautifully so). The song is definitely a precursor to ‘For Good’ from Wicked – in which Schwartz got to have another go with the idea, and likely ‘for the better’. Also ‘If I Never Knew You’ still featured at the end in the theatrical release – it is as generically pop ballady-90s as can be. Songs like this are probably why people started leaving cinemas before the credits would end – it’s just elevator music. They did better before with Elton John singing at the end of The Lion King.

Menken’s score for Pocahontas has his stamp over it, as we hear familiar Menken-isms. ‘The Fight’, ‘I’ll Never See Him Again’ and ‘Aftermath’ are particularly strong pieces of music. A favourite of ours is Pocahontas’s intro music, which has the ‘Disney magic’ – it swells and builds in its excitement, with a sound that is a blend of Golden Age and Renaissance themes – very Menken. ‘They Meet at the River’s Edge’ is also a stunning piece of music – the moment when Pocahontas and John Smith first lock eyes. While the score does have some gorgeous themes, overall, it is the least memorable of his scores in the canon – it feels creatively reigned in in comparison with his other scores, and at times (notwithstanding the themes we mentioned) sounds a tad generic – a fine score, not a great one.


‘It was a conscious decision at that point to go with essential seriousness of the story and look for the humour where we could but we couldn’t make fun of it in a way because it was too important what we were dealing with’ (DVD Commentary)

And this might be where Pocahontas fell apart in terms of story …

Peter Schneider states that the aim of Pocahontas was to ‘celebrate Native American society. We wanted to offer an ennobling and empowering view of Native Americans that hadn’t been provided in cinema before. This is a stupendous reaffirmation of a culture and language that’s been lost’. That’s a really lovely goal, and we do not doubt that that was Disney’s intention. However, we do think that Pocahontas was a ‘damned if you do damned if you don’t’ film (even one consultant Raymond Adams said, ‘I don’t care what you do . . . someone will be offended’), and in many respects, perhaps it shouldn’t have been tackled at all. Creating a film based on historical figures and events is tough enough (let alone when you’re a Disney film), but when the film is also addressing (or avoiding) a very controversial and disturbing part of world history … you’re going to run into problems that you won’t have when working with fairy tales, myths or novels. It was a risky move to explore the Pocahontas story and that’s commedable, but it was also a naïve and even foolhardy move. They were looking for a love story and a Native American story – why not look at Native American myths and legends – there must be love stories in Native American legend? Or just make up a new story? The real Pocahontas story at its heart, is a peace-making narrative – she is remembered as the peacemaker who allegedly threw herself over John Smith when he was about to be executed (and even that is debated), and as a remarkable young girl who acted as a mediator between the two peoples. In those details alone, there is a great story in this. Furthermore, the Pocahontas story gets more painful; she was kidnapped, she converted to Christianity and changed her name to Rebecca, she was taken to England and showcased as a ‘converted savage’, she married John Rolfe, had a child, and died in her early twenties, likely of TB. When all of these details are considered, it makes Disney’s Pocahontas seem shallow by comparison when you know what’s actually ‘around the riverbend’ for the main character.

Shirley Little Dove Custalow McGowan, as we said, had been a key consultant on the film, and she has gone on record to say, ‘This is a nice film – if it didn’t carry the name ‘Pocahontas’. I wish they would take the name of Pocahontas off that movie. Disney promised me historical accuracy, but there will be a lot to correct when I go into the classrooms … Disney originally told the story of Pocahontas as we know her – a child between the age of 10 and 12 who showed reverence, but certainly no love, for John Smith. By making her older and creating a romance you lose the notion of children as our future–a way of bridging the gap between cultures … My people are concerned because our story has already been changed so much’. Many believed that adding the romance cheapened their cultural heritage and felt like an appropriation of their beloved historical icon. Sonny Skyhawk pointed out, ‘Hollywood gets bothered when we exert some control because they can’t go about business as usual’. This is why it is mad really that they tackled historical figures at all – Disney was making things so much harder for themselves in terms of creative freedom – they were inevitably going to annoy people and restrict themselves.

Mike Gabriel said he ‘tried to think of it as a love story not as a historical character’ and producer James Pentecost retaliated that Pocahontas is ‘entertainment not a documentary … more love story than history lesson’ and in terms of the romance, ‘We never say that the two end up together . . . but, as in all great romances, the implication is there’.

We hope they mean within fiction and not in reality!

Pocahontas’s biggest issue is that it is a story dully told, with at times dull delivery from some of the performers (voice and design) and dull script, which do not help to elevate the story to what it could have been. It is one of the weakest scripts that we have seen in a long time, especially coming off of very sharp and witty scripts like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Basil the Great Mouse Detective … mainly Musker and Clements we realise!

You go Musker and Clements!

The introduction of the settlers is so rushed; the ship getting into danger is clearly trying to emulate The Little Mermaid, but does so with less impact. It is too immediate and frenetic with no build up. We barely know these characters, and thus the stakes aren’t as high. Even in Mermaid, we know more about the characters involved in the shipwreck that it feels intense, and it happens for a reason – for Ariel to save Eric and lead to further events – here it is thrown in to make John Smith look ‘cool’ and to emasculate Thomas.

In terms of editing, it is intensified continuity to the max – MTV generation style, which seriously collides with a film that underneath it all clearly wants to smell the roses, with its beautiful backdrops and long shots. We thought Aladdin had been edited at breakneck speed, but at least Aladdin’s style lent itself to quick edits – Pocahontas’s editing is even more intense than Aladdin’s! Everything is rushed, blink and you miss it style. It is as if the film is assuming that it will not hold the audience’s attention unless it is fast cutting. Furthermore, the animals keep interrupting scenes mid-flow, as if the filmmakers have no confidence in their serious material or no interest in it that they have to thrust goofy animal antics in our faces – like rattling keys in a toddler’s view – bombarded by wackiness. It is such an irony that The Lion King was picked on as the film that no one would see as audiences want to see people, not a cute animal movie. Pocahontas fits the description of ‘cute animal movie’ much more than The Lion King – the animals are shoehorned in either to keep children happy and/or to give the animators something more fun to do. Also the analogy of Meeko and Percy not getting on for the Natives and the Settlers not getting on?



There is an environmental agenda in the story, but there are moments which could have a significant impact, and yet decisions were made which diminish the overall effect. Following the ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’ sequence, there really needs to be an image of the devastation to the natural world caused by the settlers – like a pull back and reveal. The song plays out largely as a comedy number, which sets things up perfectly for the use of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt – a technique wherein audiences are lured into a relaxed state, before suddenly hitting them with a shocking image. During the sequence, John Smith sings joyfully about the glory of this place they’ve discovered; this should then be juxtaposed with his horror upon seeing what the settlers have done, especially since the film’s backgrounds are so stunning – it would have been heart-breaking to see these backgrounds ‘wrecked’. The filmmakers were worried that such a moment would have seemed a bit too obvious, and opted not to go with it. Also test screening audiences allegedly squirmed at the sight of the devastation. In terms of the film’s enduring legacy, such a moment would have served the film very well. ‘Colours of the Wind’ addresses the issues of cutting down trees, but it is never addressed outside of the song – no one is reprimanded for spoiling the land. At times, Pocahontas feels like a more sophisticated version of FernGully, an animated film also with an environmental agenda about fairies who use their magic to keep the rainforest alive.

(Special Note from Melissa: Also a bodacious fairy falls in love with a totally rad lumberjack)

However, fairies are mythical and magical. Unless you’re tackling a myth or legend … Native Americans aren’t MAGIC! The film seems to be presenting that Native Americans are so in tune with nature that they are ‘magical’ and can paint with all the colours of the wind, jump off high cliffs (and not die), take bear cubs from their mother (and not die), make smoke animals, foretell the future in smoke and … break language barriers through the magic of wind.

(Special Note from Melissa: All I had to do for my French A-Level exams was to listen with my heart this whole time?! If ONLY I’D KNOWN!)

The language barrier could have been a fantastic storytelling opportunity. In fact, check out Brian Friel’s Translations; that’s a wonderful example of two characters who fall in love despite not speaking the same language, and how they handle it – it’s very clever. Even Love Actually does a decent job of this situation!


Uncle Jamie YOU FOOL! You’re wasting money on language classes. All you had to do was listen with your heart and YOU WILL UNDERSTAND!

They tried so hard to make this ‘spinning arrow’ dream part of the plot a mystery that it is dragged out over the course of the film, to the point where you forget about it and they have to keep reminding you.

Stop trying to make the spinning arrow dream happen. It’s not going to happen.

(Special Note from Melissa: As soon as Pocahontas said spinning arrow, David said ‘It’s a compass’ – mystery over)

It is a ‘worlds collide’ story, demonstrating a culture which embraces their ancestry and the natural world – against the settlers whose heads have been filled with promises of glory and riches (demonstrated through ‘…or so we’ve all been told by the Virginia Company’). The conflict within the film really suffers as a result, because one side is clearly in the right from the start, making the entire conflict an overly simplified good versus bad scenario. Dare we say it … could the argument have been more balanced from a storytelling point-of-view? Other than John and Thomas, the settlers are generally presented as entitled buffoons, and the Native Americans as not having any or very little character at all (due to trying so hard not to offend). Could they have shown victims from both sides in the conflict (like Mercutio/Tybalt and Riff/Bernardo in respective Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story plots)? Imagine if they actually had followed Romeo and Juliet more closely. What if the natives had a character, perhaps a brotherly comic Mercutio-like figure close to Pocahontas who winds up in a fight with an angry Tybalt-like settler and both wind up dead? Or in reverse, an angry Tybalt-like Native American (probably closer to Kokoum to be honest) fights with comic relief settler. Two dead from both sides would have felt more balanced and if the characters were developed, more tragic.

Could we have seen Pocahontas learning more about England (her idea of ‘New World) – especially since she will eventually live there – as well as John Smith learning about her land (his idea of ‘New World’)? Pocahontas gets itchy feet at the film’s beginning, having her own version of Tony’s ‘Something’s Coming’ brewing on her mind – maybe this could have been it? They already messed around with history so much – why not have Pocahontas leave at the end to explore the ‘New World’ aka England? It may have got slammed since Pocahontas was taken against her will in real life, but again they’ve already appropriated history – her making the choice to see the world is a powerful move, and again her staying behind contradicts her earlier decision to take the road less travelled:


Cheers blatant Robert Frost symbolism

Hmm maybe that is why she was running …


Wait changed my mind I’M COMING!


Missed …

This is the recurring problem with the film – so often the bold decisions were not taken, moments of impact were heavily diluted, and there is a lack of confidence in the work. The writing staff were heavily compromised by having to tiptoe around real history, and also being overly respectful to the Powhatan tribe while at the same time skewing the Pocahontas story into a romance, which likely resulted in the bold storytelling decisions not being taken – which is why the final film is uninteresting and dull.

Credit to the story – the fact that both sides express ignorance and hate works really well. The anti-violence message is great, advocating peace, compassion and communication rather than trying to kill, and revealing how easy it is to spread fear, hate and anger. The thing is that Beauty and the Beast showcased mob mentality better and the emphasis of peace, compassion and communication will be done better (sorry we normally don’t jump ahead!) by Moana. The bittersweet ending is a strong move too, with the couple being separated (and unfortunately the horrible knowledge as to what will happen to Native American people over the next few centuries …), but in the commentary they called it the first time they’d done that – we beg to differ – The Fox and the Hound has an incredibly bittersweet ending. A love story in which the couple come from different worlds, can also make for a compelling story (notwithstanding historical accuracy), but the couple have little chemistry. It is no different from actors having no chemistry together in a live action film – John Pomeroy/Mel Gibson’s John Smith and Glen Keane/Irene Bedard’s Pocahontas don’t spark off each other, despite two lengthy kisses they share.

Just because you share steamy kisses does not mean who have chemistry


Musical theatre marketing campaign moment?

Maybe we were completely dense, but we had no idea until listening to the commentary and later listening to the soundtrack, that the leaves and the wind were meant to represent Pocahontas’s deceased mother.


That is actually a really nice idea, but it was not made clear at all! Pocahontas’s mother could have appeared in the form of leaves to offer her daughter guidance (like a dryad), she could have been reminded that he mother is here (and that’s when the leaves circle around her), she could have heard her voice in the wind, or her mother could have been seen in flashback. She seems to be set up as an important presence – ‘She has her mother’s spirit’, but it is not pushed to the forefront enough (especially considering what we just had with the Simba/Mufasa relationship). Initially they had Pocahontas speak to the stars as a means of speaking to her mother, until they realised their competitor was already doing that.


Agh you pesky B Team!

The wind circling around Powathan is meant to represent the mother in the climax, and he holds his club up to the wind, no longer enacting violence. But because we were not aware that it is the mother communicating, it just looked like Powathan was enjoying that breeze so much he decided, ‘Nah no killing today!’

The problem with Pocahontas is that they’ve imposed restrictions on themselves and dug themselves into a creative hole. They tried to import comedy whenever they could without sacrificing the film’s sombre mood and its integrity, and it just falls flat. There’s not enough confidence in the writing to allow moments to speak for themselves and organically create emotion – instead everything is oversimplified – underestimating the audience. This problem bleeds into the lyrics in some of the songs too. There are too many contrasting ideas and contradictory ideals. Did they want to tell a respectful truthful telling or a sensationalised Oscar-buzz romance? It sounds like they were completely at odds with each other, and it’s a sad situation as Pocahontas had great potential.

David’s Verdict

My immediate summary of Pocahontas after we watched it for The Disney Odyssey was: “it underwhelms”. Perhaps the expectations are too high, considering the hot-streak Disney were on at the time: not just in terms of commercial success, but also regarding the quality of their output throughout the previous five years (Rescuers Down Under notwithstanding). However, one can’t simply make excuses for the film in relation to when it was released – so I will try and critique it based upon its own merits (and shortcomings).

The studio had incredibly high expectations for the film, with most of their top animators working on it, and the studio executives really felt that they were onto something big. They’d unexpectedly got a Best Picture nomination for Beauty and the Beast and so this time they were going all out to push for Best Picture, but this time they were going to win. Sadly, it is not easy to manipulate such circumstances; Beauty and the Beast wasn’t made with Best Picture nominations in mind, it just happened to be a film of outstanding quality, and was recognised as such. If the filmmakers for Beauty and the Beast had been really hoping for Best Picture nominations, it would have compromised the creative process, and inhibited a lot of the great ideas which emerged naturally – and as a result the film would more than likely have suffered. There seems to be a determination in Pocahontas to really push animated features as ‘high-art’, and consequently we get a very serious story, with very little humour or warmth, and a lot of plain-looking (and largely inexpressive) human characters. They are trying to be something that they aren’t, and the film feels very unnatural.

Additionally, the studio inhibited themselves by telling a story based on real history – which is a risky move – and they also wanted to be respectful to the Powhatan tribe whom they were representing. Basing the story on real historical events resulted in inaccuracies, and also a fair amount of revisionist history – and also the inclusion of magic in a story which is supposed to be celebrating the beauty of the natural world. Endeavouring to be respectful at all costs also resulted in an oversimplified binary form of storytelling: settlers = bad, natives = good. Just prior to the “Colours of the Wind” sequence, the scene between Pocahontas and John Smith presents the possibility that both sides could have wisdom to impart to the other, but they opt not to explore this as Pocahontas is portrayed as a faultless paragon, who can’t be wrong about anything. I appreciate that the studio wanted Pocahontas to be a strong-willed and spirited character, but her lack of faults makes her largely uninteresting to watch.

To say some positives about the film, the background artwork looks incredible throughout, paying homage to the grand scale landscapes of Sleeping Beauty. The “Colours of the Wind” sequence looks great, as does the sequence for “Just Around the Riverbend” – also Judie Kuhn’s singing voice is incredible, one of the best in the canon so far. The “Savages” number manages to build up a good level of intensity, even though the resultant pay-off falls flat; Radcliffe manages to get a couple of decent zingers in, through his deadpan delivery – and David Ogden Stiers also managed to get a few extra genuine laughs out of me as Wiggins.

Overall though, I’m not a fan of the film – for all of the reasons stated above: each time we watch a film for this blog, we always want to enjoy it, but they don’t always make it easy to do so.

Melissa’s Verdict

Did I see Pocahontas as a child? Yes I did, but I remember much more vividly seeing the film advertised, whether in cinemas or on VHS tapes. I also had the ‘Colours of the Wind’ Sing Along Songs video, in which I probably saw the songs there before seeing the film itself. Pocahontas wasn’t quite the marketing beast in the UK that The Lion King was, but I had a Pocahontas jumper given to me as a present – it was red and had Pocahontas and John Smith moodily gazing into the distance – how accurate. However I have a terrible confession to make. In 1996 or 1997, I was in a video shop with my Dad and was allowed to pick one video to buy. I picked Pocahontas, we bought it, then in the car I went ‘Dad! I’ve changed my mind, can I swap it for another?’ That other film … was The Land Before Time II. Yes, 6 or 7 year old me swapped Pocahontas for The Land Before Time II.

Essentially this:

For this:

To be fair, I was misled. I saw the cover of The Land Before Time II and thought it was the kids grown up … it wasn’t. Just for the record, Pocahontas is a better film than The Land Before Time II. By far. But I have no regrets, primarily due to ‘Eggs’.

Sigh. I wanted to like Pocahontas, and I do like elements of it, but even the elements that I like feel compromised or messed up. The backgrounds are striking, highlighted by its use of scalebut fast editing means that they end up missed. Alan Menken’s underscore has beautiful moments but I wouldn’t call it my favourite of his scores. Pocahontas’s singing voice feels more powerful than her acting voice, meaning that I prefer her character when she sings (and her songs are great!). Characterisation is very bland, flat and/or stereotypical, which is a pity as when breaking it down, these are characters who could have had a lot of potential, particularly with main characters like Pocahontas, Ratcliffe, Powhatan and Kokoum. For me, John Smith is the worst in that category – such a dullard who could have easily been a witty, charismatic, and potentially dark character. I’m a romantic, and I did not feel invested in the romance – the characters have no chemistry – they look bored in certain shots. The concept is strong, but the film has a weak script, and regardless of whether they are historically inaccurate or not, the story and narrative flow are all over the place. While watching Pocahontas, I felt stunned that I was getting fed up with scenes and was losing interest, as I generally have a great attention span. My take on Pocahontas seems to be very ‘Yes but’, meaning it was a very ‘What could have been’ film.

I must say on a positive note that I found myself surprisingly endeared by Meeko the second time we watched it – the first time, I felt flabbergasted by how the animals were so shoehorned in and how many times they interrupted the action – the second time, I was aware of this and was able to see the merits in how well animated he was. They’re still shoehorned and bizarrely interrupt the flow, but at least he’s amusing.

I do personally prefer the efforts and results of underdog Team B’s film to Team A. It is a better and more realised film. Both Teams A and B wound up being inspired by Shakespeare in the development of their films – Pocahontas probably could have followed Shakespeare a little more closely for some guidance, especially since they were so keen on doing a Romeo and Juliet story. Also it was impossible not to compare Pocahontas to Moana, but it did cross my mind a lot – namely in the ‘Could Pocahontas have worked if Pocahontas were a young girl, like the real historical figure and slightly closer to Moana in age?’ I don’t know, but it certainly would have been a very different film. Both ended with this emphasis on peace, but in the climax of the latter film, I had tears in my eyes, and when watching the former, I didn’t …

For me, Pocahontas‘s best qualities are its beautiful backgrounds, elements of the score and songs, Meeko (even though he’s a complete interruption, I love that adorable hair-plaiting biscuit-nibbling raccoon) and the moral point that they were trying to make of peace over conflict. They took a risk in tackling a real historical figure. I admire Disney for trying but they shot themselves in the foot, as it goes between trying hard to be respectful and trying hard to be entertaining (and awards-worthy) that it ended up a hodgepodge of a film. To make matters worse, executive interference clearly reared its ugly head and too many people were making decisions on too many things. I’ll do a bake-off analogy – There were too many cooks and either someone left the Pocahontas cake out in the rain, or they threw it in a huff in the bin like the infamous baked Alaska and then had to present it to the panel. Or to be kinder, it is beautifully decorated on the outside, but when taking a bite, it leaves a bland taste in your mouth – that is Pocahontas.


Pocahontas was released in the USA on 23 June 1995, which was also the 400th Anniversary of the real Pocahontas’ birth – marketing at its most strategic. Let’s take a look at Worldwide Box Office, not adjusted for inflation:

$211,343,479                The Little Mermaid

$424,967,620                Beauty and the Beast

$504,050,219                Aladdin

$968,483,777                The Lion King

$346,079,773                Pocahontas

(Apologies for not including The Rescuers Down Under – its worldwide box office is not online!)

As you can see, the only Renaissance musical Pocahontas made more than was The Little Mermaid, and bear in mind, the latter is what kick-started this hot streak (and there is a difference of 6 years between them), and these films had been increasing in box office … until Pocahontas. It really reminds us of a line from Merrily We Roll Along in which the producer tells the writers to start off by making hits, ‘then you can do that political flop to show them you got integrity’ – sounds familiar.

There’s also a new competitor in town, and that competitor is Pixar. Toy Story came out a few months before Pocahontas and made more money worldwide. Again, Pocahontas made $346,079,773, while Toy Story made $373,554,033 – not a huge difference, but still in Pixar’s favour. Also Toy Story was the most financially successful film worldwide in 1995, followed by Die Hard: With a Vengeance, Apollo 13, GoldenEye and finally Pocahontas. However, Disney can at least find solace in the fact that their former competitor Don Bluth’s 1995 film, The Pebble and the Penguin made $3,939,728 domestically while Pocahontas at least made $141,579,773 …

Reviews varied from mixed to negative. Chicago Sun Times’s Roger Ebert said that ‘the film looks great, the songs are wonderfully visualized, and the characters are appealing. Pocahontas is just fine as family entertainment. But on a list including Mermaid, Beauty, Aladdin and Lion King, I’d rank it fifth’. Peter Travers at Rolling Stone said ‘The rap on Pocahontas is that it will spell Poca-bore-me for action-starved kids of all ages, especially restless boys who won’t sit still for a smoochy musical. Actually, it’s not the smoochiness that’s the problem … it’s the preachiness … Disney deserves praise for raising the ante on its ambitions in animation. Next time, though, a little less civics lesson and a little more heart’. For New York Times’s Janet Maslin, Pocahontas is ‘Gloriously colourful, cleverly conceived and set in motion with the usual Disney vigour, Pocahontas is one more landmark feat of animation. It does everything a children’s film should do except send little viewers home humming its theme song … The screenplay, this film’s weakest element, is filled with sawdust about finding one’s path and listening to one’s heart’.

More positive reviews include Stephen Hunter from The Baltimore Sun, ‘As history, Pocahontas is bunk. As a dramatic animated feature, however, it’s undeniably absorbing and engrossing. I leave the complete exegesis of its crimes against truth to the experts, real and phony. What matters for most of us is that the film is simply beautiful: moving, complex, brilliantly animated. As much as any Disney product of late, it seems to aim to go deeper than mere cartooning’. Peter Stack at San Francisco Gate said, ‘In its most poignant and richly drawn work since the tender classic Bambi, Walt Disney Studios has fashioned a jewel of romance — but one aglow with fun’. Variety’s Jeremy Gerard stated that ‘Pocahontas and John Smith are immensely appealing characters, and children should easily identify with them. It’s a terrific movie’.

At the Washington Post, there were two reviews. Desson Howe said, ‘After the stupendously cinematic The Lion King, the latest feature feels downright ordinary. A case in point: The Governor, a tritely fat creation, looks as though he slid off the mediocre conveyer belt of Saturday morning TV cartoons … In the ultimate test, Pocahontas, which feels like a marketing campaign with pictures rather than a movie, will fade from collective public esteem faster than Disney’s better hits, such as The Lion King, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. You don’t walk out of this movie thinking, “Wow, I’d like to see that again.” You come out wondering where you parked the car.’ Rita Kempley said, ‘All Disney has really done in its disappointing 33rd animated feature is revive the stereotype of the Noble Savage … The most heavy-handed of the seven songs composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, “Savages” lacks the vivacity and wit that Menken’s late partner, Howard Ashman, brought to previous Disney musicals’.

Pocahontas won ‘Best Original Song’ for ‘Colours of the Wind’ and ‘Best Original Musical or Comedy Score’ at the Academy Awards – it didn’t win, wasn’t nominated, and we hypothesise, not even considered for nomination for Best Picture. ‘Colours of the Wind’ won a Golden Globe for ‘Best Original Song’ and the film was nominated for ‘Best Original Score’ (Toy Story was nominated for Best Musical/Comedy, but Pocahontas was not). ‘Colours of the Wind’ also won ‘Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television’ at the Grammys. At the Annie Awards, they won four and were nominated for three; they won Best Animated Feature, Best Individual Achievement for Production Design for Michael Giaimo, Best Individual Achievement for Music for Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, and Best Individual Achievement in Animation for Nik Ranieri for Meeko. Rasoul Azadani was nominated for Best Individual Achievement for Production Design, and Chris Buck and David Pruiksma for Best Individual Achievement for Animation respectively for Grandmother Willow and Flit. Pocahontas won a Golden Screen Award, an Environmental Media Award, a Motion Picture Sound Editing Award, a Casting Society of America Award, a BMI Film Music Award, two ASCAP awards. The film was also nominated for a Young Artist Award for Best Family Feature – Musical or Comedy; it lost to Toy Story.

Pocahontas has left a legacy of being both a milestone for representation of Native Americans, but also as making it worse. We mentioned Shirley ‘Little Dove’s’ feelings on the matter in Story, as well as other Native Americans’ views on the subject, varying from pleased (due to it feeling like a ‘more balanced’ representation) to resigned (because no matter what you do, someone will get offended and Hollywood will always do what they want) to annoyed (because there is so much wrong, inaccurate and/or offensive about the film). Some saw it has a step forward, others a step back and others just standing still with minimal change. Hollywood has appropriated Native American history for years, as have Disney, mythologising and sexualising Native Americans, and Pocahontas is part of that. Pocahontas means well but its biggest crime from a legacy-point-of-view is that it misleads. It’s a huge step ahead of Peter Pan, but still has a long way to go.

Don Bluth may be out as a competitor but Pixar is in, and Pocahontas has a legacy alone by being released the same year as Pixar’s first feature length film, marking the beginning of the ‘downfall’ of not only Disney feature animation’s success, but also of hand-drawn animated films. Toy Story is wonderful and for us, a better film than Pocahontas, but both a genius and a monster has been created in 1995. Just because an excellent computer-generated film has been made, it does not mean that everyone will use this technology well, and because it will be cheaper, akin to the transition to Xerox back in the 1960s following the very beautiful but cripplingly expensive Sleeping Beauty, hand-drawn animation is already in danger, even at this stage in The Disney Odyssey. So credit to Pocahontas, we’ll be very grateful for its gorgeous backgrounds, as it may be the end for Disney’s signature beauty. Beginning with Pocahontas we are in the second half of the Renaissance, so let’s see what happens … Perhaps we’ll be surprised.

Thanks for reading!

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18 Responses to Classic No. 33 Pocahontas (1995)

  1. Paul Astell says:

    Fantastic review, as always! I agree with your final comments on this one: it looks great, and it mostly sounds great, but it has no depth and leaves you pretty unsatisfied. I was laughing my head off at all those comments about Pocahontas’s ridiculously sexy design haha – Naomi Campbell! What were they thinking? I also like the nod to FernGully (a huge guilty pleasure of mine).
    One thing that I’ve always felt about Pocahontas is that, despite the many, many flaws of the film itself, one thing it does incredibly well is the ending. I get the feeling you wouldn’t agree, but I think this has one of the strongest endings in the Disney canon – it’s like the reverse of Ariel’s story, with Pocahontas making the more mature decision to stay with her loved ones rather than run off with John. And the staging and score both shine at that point too!
    I can’t wait to see your take on Hunchback when you get to it, it’s so underrated and I’m sure you’ll find plenty to enjoy!
    (Oh and btw, I really love that Jon Secada/Shanice pop duet of If I Never Knew You haha; maybe I just have awful taste!)

    • Researching those reviews on Pocahontas was eye-opening. We were just looking up reviews for our usual Legacy section, but there was so much focus on Pocahontas’s (and John Smith but to a lesser extent) appearance that we felt the need to present it in Protagonist – she was so objectified by critics that it got ridiculous but sadly believable. We’ve seen a little of this before, but no where near the extent here.

      Thanks for your lovely comments! This one is a beast in length, likely due to how much of, as we said ‘a yes but’ film this is – you wind up going around in circles, trying to make critical sense of it.

      You make a great point about the ending, and we do genuinely like the meaning of it – choosing to stay with your people as opposed to leaving with your ‘lover’ whom you’ve only known for a few days. That’s a good message. But there is such a build up to this notion that Pocahontas feels stifled and wants excitement in her life – wanting the unsteady path – that it seemed odd that she chose the ‘steady’ path by staying – perhaps it is the mature and sensible choice rather than the flighty one. A great message, but strange for her character in this context. On a personal level, we didn’t want her to go to be with John Smith (maybe we would have, had that relationship been better and John not been such a bore …), but to go for herself – to find that path and that adventure she has been hungry for – seeking her ‘New World’. We also agree that the music is excellent at the end as she runs towards the ship, and the shots are glorious.

      Haha each to their own on songs – as long as you enjoyed it 🙂 We’ll likely watch Hunchback this evening or tomorrow – haven’t seen it in a few years so quite excited about this one!

      • Furienna says:

        To be fair though, Pocahontas did travel over the ocean in the sequel. And she did not even do it to be with John Smith, but she did it as an ambassador for her people.

  2. swanpride says:

    I have to disagree with you: If there has ever been a movie which shouldn’t have any villain at all, it is this one. You are just undermining the “we have to understand each other” message if you have a clear villain egging the others on instead of letting human nature play out.

    Imho, Disney already went wrong when they picked a story white people made up about native americans instead of looking into actual native folklore the way they did it with Moana. But the movie could have been good nevertheless, if they had managed to step away from the typical Disney tropes and avoided to simplify the story – I mean, it isn’t exactly true that the settlers were just in it for gold, is it? Most of them were practically refugees, escaping poverty in hope for a better live. Not that they weren’t entitled, but there is more to their story than greed.

    As it is, it is a little bit frustrating that so much artistry is just lost on a movie that bland.

    • We do mention that the film may have been better with no villain. This is what we said: “On the flip side, why have a big bad villain at all? Why not treat both sides the same? What if initially it starts well, with the natives welcoming the ‘visitors’, and something goes wrong (perhaps leading into someone getting hurt) – there could have been a leaders’ negotiation scene between the two sides, laying down terms, and it goes sour, and eventually becoming violent with prejudice and misunderstanding between both sides mounting high. Instead we have ‘WAHHH GOLD AND GLITTER!!!’ – one greedy man and a patronising over-simplification of the conflict.”

      What we were saying was, either have an interesting villain or don’t have one at all. Ratcliffe, as he is in this film, just doesn’t work. Either have an effective villain or none at all, and the latter case probably would have been more effective in a film like this.

      That’s the thing, the other characters may have reasons for being there but it focuses so much on Ratcliffe as a ‘Big Bad Wolf’ figure who wants gold that it undermines the potentially stronger message that they are trying to present. We agree, it is sad that a film with so much glorious artistry is on the dull side.

      • swanpride says:

        Well, I agree with this…I just don’t think that an interesting villain would have undermined the intended message of the movie in any way less.

        Yeah, we are on the same page concerning the movie…oh, and thank you for pointing out the expressionless faces…there was always something which bothered me about the animation for the human characters, but I couldn’t quite figure it out.

        Ah, another thing I disagree about: I actually think that “If I never new you” belongs in the end credits, because the song says nothing which isn’t already in the dialogue between John and Pocahontas, and I feel the whole “I rather die tomorrow than living thousands years without having known you” line is more powerful if it stands on its own. By playing the song in the end again, it calls back to the scene. It works really well since it ties in the last scene (unlike all the other end-credit pop songs, which are usually just thrown in there with little meaning).

        • We re-watched ‘Aladdin’ last night and because we’ve been so focused on ‘Pocahontas’, we were bizarrely astonished by how expressive the characters are, and reminded by how expressionless by comparison the characters in ‘Pocahontas’ are

  3. “Alas, poor Kocuum, I never knew him Horatio.” Love it, lol!

    Great review and while I probably don’t dislike this film as much as you may do, it’s definitely…………unmemorable, I guess? I actually know someone who has this as their favorite film in the Disney Canon and I’m like, “Huh.”.

    But yeah, the Eggs song in The Land Before Time II is much better than any song from this movie!

    • Haha we probably sound like we hate it more than we do. It’s not that we dislike it as such, it’s just … very disappointing and bland. We know a few people around our age who said they love ‘Pocahontas’, but we when we ask, ‘When did you last see it?’, the response is generally, ‘When I was little’. Think they may need to watch it again …

      ‘Eggs’ is a curiosity – we can never get over the fact that someone out there wrote lyrics for that song, another composed music for those lyrics and it was recorded. It’s baffling

  4. anii654 says:

    I’ve been waiting for this specific review since you both have started the blog all of those years ago, and you both definitely delivered. It is such a shame because for a film that is supposed to be so complex, it is very thin regarding characterization and plot. Ignoring the inaccuracy in itself, if they developed the two groups of people, and our main characters, the film would have been SO much better.

    Sadly, it is a prime example of “style over substance”, since they were too pressured by Katzenberg to make it look pretty and serious, without organically building tension.

    • Thanks anii654 for your compliments! We went in to ‘Pocahontas’ with as open a mind as possible, notwithstanding that we knew it received mixed reviews and generally critics and audiences are down on it today due to tedium and its controversial subject matter. Thin is a great way of describing characterisation and plot, as is style over substance. It’s a shame because they must have been excited about this film when they initially began working on it. After all, everyone wanted to be on that team

  5. Isabel says:

    Fantastic review! You never disappoint. I was just watching this the other day, I needed some background “noise” while working… sheesh, that already tells a lot, and after reading your review I watched bits in English and oh, dear Lord. It is BAD. I mean, the main characters’ personalities (and I’m using that term loosely) are still the same, after all it is the same script but the performance adds a little bit to it. Pocahontas singing voice was one very famous opera singer in Mexico so she kind of gives the original singer a good equivalent but the others, sorry but the Latin American actor did a better job than Mel Gibson. (Who’s idea was that anyway? Morons…Sean Bean would’ve been ideal, though maybe then Smith would’ve definitely died hehe)
    I agree with many, many things in this review: I adored Grandomther Willow as a kid because she slightly reminded me of my great grandmother, but vaguely. Then came another character that was basically her in a better way. Now, she just seems weird. And the design is just..meh. The animals I love, especially that cute, stupid raccoon. The dog, well, I didn’t like as a kid but just because I don’t really like pugs, but now I find him more interesting than the villain himself. That talks bad about your villain.
    It is as if they were walking on eggshells and now the movie is a beautiful image and soundtrack but story wise, it is quite underwhelming. To sum up, either really go deep and give us a great villain (Disney can make fantastic villains) or do not go there at all. It seems they were so afraid to offend someone and so focused in the whole “Awards” thing that they lost sight of the most important thing: the story and its characters.
    However, two things: one, I love the ending. Its bittersweet but shows that sometimes dreams cannot come true and you must let go a bit. It’s a part of growing up and maybe by staying she’ll accomplish some better understanding of the Englishmen who stay and her own people. She gives up her own happiness for the welfare of her people. That takes guts. I don’t know, maybe I am weird like that.
    And then the song “Savages” (or “Sandwiches”, I thought so too Mel). If you just tweak the lyrics a little bit on both parts, but especially part 1, it is perfectly applicable to my country’s present situation with our northern neighbours (aka USA). It is kinda sad that 20 years later people still treat each other with so much disdain. I wish that bit was different, but that song strikes close to home.
    Overall I agree with most of what you said, and I’ll insist on disdaining Katzenberg and his “ideas” until the end of times.
    Looking forward to the next one!

    Here’s a bit of it in Latin American Spanish. Hope you enjoy it

  6. Cinder-L-a says:

    Are you guys still alive? 😶I’ve been reading your reviews, but it’s been a while since you’ve posted. 😓 Love reading it, by the way.👍

    • We are happy to tell you that we are still alive 🙂 Thank you for your concerns, as well as your kind words on our blog. We’re glad you love reading it! We have no other excuse other than our blog having to take a back seat as our theatre company took off with a production that we worked on from August to November last year. Then in December … the two of us got engaged! So as well as planning theatre projects, and doing full-time jobs, we are also planning a wedding. We want all of our readers to know though that we love writing this blog so much, and want to get the next post out so badly and carry on our Disney Odyssey journey. We value all of our readers and your support and we hope the next one will not disappoint

      • Cinder-L-a says:

        Congratulations on your engagement, then!
        I know weddings can be stressful to plan. Hope all goes well. And I know the next post will not disappoint. Congratulations on your theatre success, too!

      • Furienna says:

        And I had not realized that you haven’t made a new review in ten months! It is about time for “Hunchback” now, huh?

        I have to congratulate you on your engagement though. 🙂

  7. Array says:

    Even though I don’t always with Pocahontas herself, you’re wrong that she was patronized John Smith back. Instead, she expressed her indignation at the word “savages.” And I agree with her in that respect.
    You see? Pocahontas didn’t want anyone treating her and her people with contempt. That’s why she tried to Smith’s mind by singing “Colors of the Wind,” which is my favorite song in their first movie because of how spiritual and mind-opening it is.
    Also, there’s no such thing as benevolent prejudice. No matter how anyone words any bias, prejudice is still prejudice. And so, all people have to be cautious about what they say.

    • Hi! We know that Pocahontas doesn’t want anyone treating her or her people with contempt. What we meant was that Pocahontas patronised John Smith with the line, ‘How can there be so much that you don’t know’ (not her response of ‘savages!’ which was complete indignation), and in that context we meant patronise in a good way – John Smith was rude to her (and incorrectly thought he was being ‘nice’), and she appropriately says back ‘How can there be so much that you don’t know?’ He was acting superior towards her, she has every right to show superiority back, because it’s true – there is so much he doesn’t know that she knows.

      Sorry there may have been a tone confusion – we put benevolent prejudice in quotation marks because we were being sarcastic. We were speaking of it in the context of filmmakers using it as a trope, i.e. he’s the prejudiced hero, but we have to like him, so ‘he means wellllllll but just doesn’t knowwwwwwwww’. We were not saying that we believe in it.

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