Suspended Animation #225
I recently had the chance to re-watch Disney’s animated feature Pocahontas (1995) on television. Yes, I have a copy on DVD but I would never think to pull it out to watch unless I was working on some project and needed to do some research.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have caught a showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark on television at different points in the film and just ended up watching the entire thing even with commercials and even though I have a great DVD copy.
I must admit that when Pocahontas was first released, I was very disappointed in the film for a variety of reasons but primarily because of some story related elements. I don’t think I have ever run into a Disney fan who claims it is his favorite Disney animated feature or even in the top five even though just about every Disney animated feature is someone’s sentimental favorite.
Pocahontas was intended to be a major animated hit for the Disney Company and the highly favorable response to the advance preview clip of the song Colors of the Wind released in November 1994 stirred anticipation for the final film. It was predicted to be a prestigious and successful animated hit that would follow in the steps of Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.
In fact, a smaller “B” film worked on by newer animators doing some of their first work on lead characters and a story that had some major troubles in development was rushed into release to give the top animators more time to focus on Pocahontas.
That little film was The Lion King (1994), and it became the highest grossing animated film of all time up to that point, which meant that if Pocahontas even made a significant profit, it would still be considered a disappointment—which it was.
In 1607, British settlers arrive in the “New World” of America and establish the colony of Jamestown. These men include heroic explorer Captain John Smith and the commander of the group, Governor Ratcliffe, who is obsessed with finding huge amounts of gold. He becomes incensed when none is found.
Chief Powhatan and his free-spirited young daughter Pocahontas at first try their best to avoid these intruders, but can’t help but finally find themselves involved, resulting in a cultural war.
Smith, who represents progress at any cost, and Pocahontas, who advocates for respect of the Earth, develop a personal relationship and, with the help of the mystical Grandmother Willow, discuss bringing a peace between their two groups. This hope is shattered when Pocahontas’ suitor, the warrior Kocoum, is killed by a young, scared, inexperienced British sailor named Thomas — sparking a war.
Smith is sentenced to execution and Pocahontas throws herself between her father and Smith, begging for a cessation of all hostilities. Her father relents. Smith repays this generous gesture by throwing himself in front of the chief and taking the bullet shot by Ratcliffe, who is arrested by the crew. Smith returns to England for medical treatment while Pocahontas remains with her tribe.
That is certainly an awkward ending because, of course, Pocahontas and Smith cannot hook up, although throughout the film it seems to be leading to that natural conclusion. The film supposedly is based on reality and Pocahontas and Smith never got together in real life.
So it must be emphasized that Smith’s wounds are so severe that Pocahontas’ tribe’s proven effective natural holistic remedies have to be ignored so that he can spend many months at sea bleeding on a bacteria-ridden, rat-infested ship.
In the film, Pocahontas gives the wounded Smith some willow bark to help ease the pain. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, the basis of aspirin. It never made logical or emotional sense for Smith to leave, and so the ending fell flat.
It would have made more sense to stress that Smith had to return to England to testify, since his status and reputation would make him a credible witness, so that the crew wouldn’t get hung for mutiny against Ratcliffe and showing up without any gold for those who financed the expedition.
By the way, the real Pocahontas was not a princess, because her Powhatan tribe never had that designation like some of the Western Plains tribes. At best, her status might be comparable to being the daughter of the President of the United States, which wouldn’t make her a princess.
Pocahontas doesn’t marry a prince, either, but an Englishman named John Rolfe, both in real life and in the Disney animated sequel, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998). However, in the parks, she is paired with John Smith perhaps because not even the most devoted Disney fan would recognize John Rolfe, or remember the fact that in both real and animated life Smith abandoned Pocahontas.
Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow-McGowan was a descendent of the Powhatan Indians and consulted with the Disney Studios three times about the film, but eventually felt that the production was not adhering strictly enough to historical accuracy and disavowed any further participation.
However, Disney claims that Pocahontas is indeed a princess, because she is the daughter of a chief and that is comparable enough—especially when you need diversity in a group of princesses before the creation of Princess Tiana and others. Yet, rarely is she portrayed in the parks by a Native American performer, but by all sorts of other nationalities.It bothers me that Disney completely ignores Princess Tiger Lily from Peter Pan (1953) who is indeed a true Indian princess and is constantly identified by that honorific by everyone. She is even very young like the original Disney princesses.
Ironically, co-director Mike Gabriel had a hand-made poster consisting of a drawing of Tiger Lily from Peter Pan surrounded by forest animals and pitched it to Disney executives as the story of a girl trapped between the love of her father’s people and their enemy. It was meant to be a sort of Native American Romeo and Juliet story.
Originally, Pocahontas’ animal friend was to have been a comedic talking turkey named Redfeather, who thought he was quite a ladies’ man, and who would be voiced by comedian John Candy. With Candy’s death in 1994, and further development on the script, it was determined that no animals should talk.
Speaking of casting, most Disney fans forget that the recently deceased actor David Odgen Stiers provided the voice for both Governor Ratcliffe as well as Ratcliffe’s assistant, Wiggins.
Those I have talked to who were at the recording sessions were amazed by his versatility at creating such distinctively different characters who interacted with each other. His other Disney voice credits included the clock Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast (1991), the arch deacon in Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and Jumba Jookiba in Lilo and Stitch (2002) and its many spin-offs.
Interestingly, in all the end of the year retrospectives of actors who passed away last year, he is always showcased for his role in the M*A*S*H television series as the highly cultured surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III that he portrayed from 1977 until the series ended in 1983 but no mention for his memorable animation voice work.
I think Pocahontas like many Disney films will seem better as time passes. While it is flawed, there is still much to recommend the work in it – and it will be re-evaluated.