ANIMATION ANECDOTES
July 26, 2019 posted by Jim Korkis

Pondering “Pocahontas”

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.

Princess Tiger Lily from “Peter Pan” (1953)

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.

25 Comments

  • A few things bothered me about this film. The animals are too cutesy-cutesy, while the rest of the story is serious, and Pocahontas learns to speak English in less than a minute. And of course in real life there would have been a huge age gap between Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. He was no heart throb hunk. He employed exaggeration and deceit in his writings about the New World.

    But I did appreciate that the themes of death and betrayal were played out uncompromisingly. The human animation was very realistically done. “Colors of the Wind” was impressive on many levels, and so was “Just Beyond the River Bend.” And the bittersweet ending was a true departure for Disney, and a brave way to conclude the story. Overall, it is consistent with the tale of Smith and Pocahontas as it has been told through the ages.

    The sequel “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World” is very impressive, because it is one Disney sequel that opens up new ground instead of rehashing the original. Bear-baiting was a practice in England at the time and it could have been used against Pocahontas to trigger her outrage, as it was in the film. Having her end up with John Rolfe is a nod in the direction of history. The two films are more of a piece than most original Disney animated films and their direct-to-video sequels. It’s best if they are watched back to back.

    • The design for John Smith calls to mind Jan-Michael Vincent in THE WORLD’S GREATEST ATHLETE more than the real John Smith who had a beard and a mustache.

  • The main problem to me with “Pocahontas” is that it was the first Disney animated movie to be sanitised to the point that it would not offend.

    While the intentions were honourable, the movie (despite the nature element), and especially the two human leads ended up being too bland and unsatisfying.

    Powhatan was fine, Radcliffe was evil, but the animal sidekicks appeared out of place (in stark comparison to Snow White and her woodland animals).

    The intensely beautiful song “If I Ever Knew You” was also unusually downplayed in the marketing of the film.

    Ironically with the next animated feature “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” (in my opinion the 2nd best full length animated feature behind “The Little Mermaid” of the Eisner era), Disney did what they should have done with Pocahontas.

    They managed to turn the hunchback, which up till then had been presented primarily as a horror character up to ridicule, into a likeable and sympathetic personality (who also sold a lot of plush toys by children because they saw the the character as loveable).

    Meanwhile how many plush toys did you see of Pocahontas (who SHOULD have sold a lot of toys?) because she didn’t register in the same way.

    RE Tiger Lily:

    I understand why Disney may be downplaying her role in the princess merchandising.

    While she was presented as a straight (and mute) personality, the rest of the tribe were presented in a humorous non-mocking vein (clearly presented in the lyrics of “What Made The Red Man Red” song)

    Red skinned because of blushing – who’s going to take that seriously?

    Unfortunately there are those trolls who act as if the sequence is deadly serious, and therefore alluding to racist overtones.

    Disney would prefer to not stir up the trolls, so they play down her role.

    • I agree completely about Hunchback, which is a beautiful and appropriately dark story, despite Frollo being recast as a judge and the happy ending. But it would have been so much better if they had cut the sight gags, the pop-culture references, and the god-awful song “A Guy Like You,” which brings the story to a crashing halt for a soft-shoe number while Paris is literally burning. I can also do without the pop song recording over the credits (the song is beautiful, the performance not so much) but Disney seems to have a thing about that. I’d rather just hear score material.

    • Trying to sanitize the film was what undermined it dramatically.

  • Gene Siskel was one of the film’s champions when it was first released. He and Roger Ebert had a memorable argument about it on their show.

    Personally, it’s not in my top ten of Disney animated films but I enjoyed it well enough. The DTV sequel, on the other hand…

  • I think might also be overshadowed by the live-action film “New World” (2006) which was seemingly a more accurate portrayal of the events of Jamestown, although that film might had some criticism as well. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I know that it had a recent Criterion release on DVD and Blu-Ray.

    • Critics for “The New World” (2005) were generally mixed-to-positive on it when it was released, but it has been continuously championed by many who noticed the empathetic and sensitive way Terrence Malick, the director, approached American history. I haven’t personally seen it yet, but one of the films critics I most respect, Matt Zoller Seitz, has considered “The New World” as his favorite film of all time alongside “Wings of Desire” (1987).

  • It’s a gorgeous film, with striking visuals and music. Colors of the Wind is perhaps my favourite Disney song. It has a strong message that resonated deeply with me when I first saw it, as I was dating my wife, who is herself part of a visible a minority and from a different culture.

    But the story is really very slight, with an ending that – as you say – falls rather flat. Compared to the films that had just preceded it, Pocahontas just couldn’t match up. It simply wasn’t “epic enough” to meet expectations. And yet, removed from those early expectations, I can (and have for many years) appreciate it better now for the film that it is, rather than the film I had expected it to be. I can focus on the stunning imagery, the lovely music, and the themes that are (though this be a cliché) more important than ever.

    And lest us forget the missing song, which is available on the DVD via branching (but not the Blu-ray!) that brings into better focus the romantic relationship and shows that, even though they couldn’t end up together, John Smith and Pocahontas experienced a love and understanding that was more important in its repercussions than a “happily ever after” conclusion. Had that song been in the film the whole time, it would have come off better. Still, even the theatrical version can be well enjoyed and appreciated for its many positives, including Glen Keane & company’s amazing animation.

  • This movie is case-in-point why Disney should have never, ever attempted historical fiction. It’s one thing when an enchanted fairly tale princess frolics in the woods with obsequious sentient animals, it’s entirely something else when it was a real person. Setting aside the racial stereotypes for a moment, imagine any other real person doing that, be it Mary Anning or Ada Lovelace, it’s utterly incongruous. Yet it IS a racial stereotype particular to Indigenous Americans. It’s just one sour note in an completely tone-deaf film, but it’s not the smallest one.

    Shoehorning her into the role of princess is irksome for its insensitive inaccuracy, categorically so. Disney’s aggrandizement of princesses has on the whole come across as mercenary at best, anti-American at worst (“but it’s just for kids!”). Of course, however, unlike other “princesses” her “gown” is a deerskin dress–it’s not even traditional ceremony attire–whereas the others wear ornate things.

    “Yet, rarely is she portrayed in the parks by a Native American performer, but by all sorts of other nationalities.”

    She wasn’t even modeled after a Native American to begin with, if I remember correctly, but instead based on a South East Asian women.

    People were in an uproar over Princess Tiana’s depiction in Wreck-it-Ralph 2 over implications of her apparent slight tweaks (which is fair enough), but Pocahontas has never been authentic and no-one said a damned thing about her when she was standing right there in the very same screen-grabs.

    • I think you might be over-reacting there.

    • Personally I would love to see a Disney animated movie about Mary Anning, singing plesiosaur fossils and all.

    • Well who could argue with that unassailable logic?

  • I remember when Pocahontas was released and also not feeling enthusiastic about it. Compared to the then recent releases by Disney, it felt very underwhelming. The song Colors Of The Wind is an awesome song though (It almost reminds me of the tune Two Silhouettes from Make Mine Music in terms of mood). Most girls I knew back then really like the film though.

    The most disappointing element is that they abandoned their traditional character designs that ushered in the renaissance in favor of more realistic humans designs. Perhaps this was done in an attempt to portray Native Americans in a more respectful light, considering Hollywood’s track record of negative portrayals of them. Nonetheless, I consider this change in art style the end of Disney’s renaissance era.

    Where did the notion of John Smith and Pocahontas having a romantic relationship originate? Surely it wasn’t this film. The WB cartoon Johnny Smith And Poker-Huntas (1938) is an earlier example.

    Not one of Disney’s greats, but like some of the other lesser films it has great sequences. Disney’s Pocahontas is still a great heroine though.

    • There’s also that scene in “Boobs in the Woods” (1950) where Daffy portrays her and teasingly flirts with Porky. “Captain John Smith marry’um Pocahontas. Raise’um little Pocah-chips.”

  • “I think Pocahontas like many Disney films will seem better as time passes. ”

    I respectfully disagree, not because I feel it is a bad film, but because the social and cultural context of its production and release will eventually fade from memory. Many people today may remember the heady days of the 1990s when blockbuster films emanated through a monoculture, but as culture becomes more niche and personal (via Netflix) , that aspect will be lost.

    Even though cultural sensitivity was already entrenched in filmmaking by the time of Pocahontas’ production, in the 24 years since, the audience demand for absolute accuracy with regards to cultural representation means that the ability to take liberties is severely curtailed. The brouhaha surrounding Moana during development and the demands circulating around the internet that only voice actors with an appropriate cultural heritage are cast in new productions are evidence of this.

    “While it is flawed, there is still much to recommend the work in it ? and it will be re-evaluated.”

    I truly hesitate to draw a comparison to Song of the South, given that it’s controversial source material and portrayal does not make it an appropriate comparison. yet I can see parallels for how opinion of that film has changed dramatically over time as society progressed and brought cultural norms with it. It is now difficult, if not impossible, to critically discuss that film without touching on the racial aspects of the story and the film’s release. The context of the1940s is now completely lost and any discussion or critical analysis can only be viewed through the distortions a 21st century lens; for better and for worse.

    As the years roll on, I can see critical opinion of Pocahontas shifting from that of a decent-if-flawed Disney blockbuster to more of a lamentation that a company with as much influence as Disney failed to use their cultural influence in the appropriate manner. In the decades to come, people will view the film through a contemporary lens devoid of the context of the early 1990s. Any good intentions that Disney had may well get lost in an ensuing shift in attitudes that see Pocahontas (and indeed, other Disney films) be re-evaluated in unflattering ways.

    • Are you sure about this? I honestly don’t recall seeing anything that one would deemed overly offensive at all (although, that was over twenty years ago). I think they took extreme caution on this subject and the only people that would deem this film “offensive” is those bitter “fans” that stir controversary for nothing or fun (which is, unfortunately, getting more and more common here on the Internet). .

    • I am 49 years old, watching animation for almost all my life, and I never, NEVER heard anyone complain about “racial representations” or other snowflake paranoias like that in Pocahontas, SoTS, Dumbo or any other “insensitive (!!!)” cartoons. Maybe this is a ‘murican SJW thing, but please don’t turn a problem only you have into something “universal”. Pocahontas is a solid piece of art and narrative (minus the finale, maybe) and will remain so for a long long time.

    • “I honestly don’t recall seeing anything that one would deemed overly offensive at all…”

      That was the point I was making: even though Disney did make a concerted effort regarding the film as M. Kirby points out, where the bar for acceptability was 24 years ago is not where it is now, or where it will be in another 24 years. If the trend since the film’s release continues, then it may be come to be seen as insensitive in the future.

    • Personally, I would take Kirby’s comment with a big grain of salt. It feels like a mountain out of a mole hill thing.

  • This is my favorite movie, period. I think if you hang out on Instagram, you will find others like me. 😁

  • I remember a writer — here perhaps? — asserting that it was Jeffrey Katzenberg who shaped “Pocahontas”, wanting a sophisticated, grown-up “real” hit instead of traditional Disney. When Katzenberg left to pursue this approach at Dreamworks (“Prince of Egypt” and “Road to El Dorado”), the hunger for ambitious blockbusters lingered at Disney and inspired other studios chasing Disney’s renaissance successes.

    It might be compared to the 60s, when few bit hits — “Mary Poppins” and “My Fair Lady” in particular — inspired a wave of outsized musicals.

  • I won’t even discuss the film. She was a real person, like Anastasia, and the very idea of fictionalizing her life this way is too troubling for me to consider it worth analyzing.

  • I was living in America in 1995, and I remember that much of the criticism leveled against Disney’s Pocahontas on cultural grounds came not from politically correct SJW cucktard snowflakes, or whatever the current slur du jour is, but from conservatives. One op-ed writer — it may have been Cal Thomas — was offended because the historical Pocahontas’s conversion to Christianity was not included in the movie. That would have made for an interesting plot twist.

    Also, conservatives decried the “reverse racism” of depicting the white colonists as greedy and exploitative. One heard similar criticisms of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” around the same time.

    This was when religious conservatives were targeting Disney for Miramax movies like Priest and Dogma, as well as for the Gay and Lesbian Days at their theme parks and gay-friendly employee benefits policy. I have no idea what Native Americans might have thought of Disney’s Pocahontas, but as far as conservatives were concerned, the movie had gone way overboard in catering to political correctness.

    I have never owned Pocahontas on home video, but this discussion is making me curious to take another look at it. Whether it “will seem better as time passes” remains to be seen. But Jim is usually right about these things.

  • One thing that likely hurt this movie pre-emptively was the backlash over Disney’s America a year before this. That was also over real-life events that happened years ago in Virginia. That fueled the fire to the perception that Disney only wanted to commercialize history and water it down to sell toys.

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