Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
In 1607, after a dangerous sea voyage, a ship carrying English settlers and adventurers arrives in what is now Virginia. Led by the greedy Governor Ratcliffe, they are there ostensibly to build a new foothold in North America for the English crown, but also to enrich themselves in a hunt for gold.
One member of the crew, the explorer and adventurer John Smith, goes scouting in the woods near the new settlement. There he encounters Pocahontas, the young daughter of Powhatan, chief of the Native Americans that live in the area. Due to be wed to the warrior Kocoum against her will, she immediately finds herself attracted to Smith, and begins to teach him about the land and their ways. The two fall in love, despite her father’s insistence that she stay away from the English invaders for her own safety.
Smith attempts to broker a peace between the two groups. Unfortunately, he is discovered kissing Pocahontas by both Kocoum and a young English settler named Thomas who was ordered to spy on him by Ratcliffe. Kocoum attacks Smith in a rage, and Thomas shoots him to protect Smith. Smith is captured and sentenced to death by Powhatan, and Thomas flees to warn the settlers before they are attacked.
Battle lines are drawn up, and Smith’s execution is meant to be the signal to attack. At the last second, Pocahontas throws herself on Smith, insisting that if her father wants to kill him, he’ll have to kill her too. Powhatan relents, and the tribe backs off. Ratcliffe orders the settlers to attack anyway, but they refuse. Ratcliffe attempts to shoot Powhatan, but Smith takes the bullet for him. Ratcliffe gets arrested by his own men, and Smith is taken back to England for medical attention while Pocahontas looks on from a cliff overlooking the harbor.
After he finished directing Rescuers Down Under, animator Mike Gabriel was looking for a project that was completely different from the Australian animal adventure film. During Thanksgiving in 1990, he hit upon the idea of doing an animated version of the legend of the romance between English settler John Smith and the Native American Pocahontas, and the pitch was almost immediately greenlit for development by the studio.
A year later, Beauty and the Beast would receive the first-ever Best Picture nomination for an animated movie. Katzenberg was almost desperate to repeat that success, and he looked at Pocahontas as the most likely candidate among the movies in progress at the studio. He pushed for Pocahontas to be aged up (historically she was in her early teens) to make it a more mature relationship, and he didn’t want any talking animals in the movie. Eric Goldberg, the Genie’s animator on Aladdin, had been brought on as co-director, and he wasn’t too happy about the more serious direction that the movie was taking. He didn’t quit, but he did start moonlighting for a rival animation company under the name “Claude Raynes”.
Katzenberg became convinced that Pocahontas would be much more commercially successful than the other movie Disney had in active production, The Lion King. He managed to convince most of the other higher ups of this, to the point that all of Disney’s best animators wanted to work on Pocahontas instead. They even managed to talk one of the animators who had defected with Don Bluth back in the 80s, John Pomeroy, into coming back to the company to animate John Smith.
Unfortunately for them, The Lion King proved to be the smash hit between the two. Pocahontas wasn’t a failure by any means – it was the fourth-highest grossing movie of the year – but it was seen as a disappointment in comparison. It also only received average reviews, and got fewer Oscar nominations than The Lion King, though neither of them got Katzenberg his coveted Best Picture nomination. There wouldn’t be another animated film nominated for the top prize until Up in 2009, though the creation of the Best Animated Feature category probably didn’t help.
Hey look, everyone! The Disney reviews are back! I just wish I had a better movie to restart on.
This is a movie with a major identity crisis. Half of the time it seems to want to be a serious, adult romantic drama. And then the entire movie will come crashing to a halt for a slapstick sequence involving Pocahontas’s animal companions, or will begin to venture into fantasy territory with a talking willow tree. If it had picked one and stuck with it, it might have been the success that Katzenberg envisioned. As is, however, it’s kind of a mess.
It’s an absolutely beautiful mess, at least. The upside to having all of the best talent at the company together on one film is some of the best-looking environments, backgrounds and uses of color in decades. The animators took the beauty of the pre-colonization American forests and ran with it. The human characters have an interesting angular look to them that’s very distinct from the more traditional, rounded designed used in things like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, but it fits in well with the rest of the art and the more mature tone that the movie tries to take. An adult appearance for an adult movie, I guess?
The problem was, and still is for the most part (in America at least), that Disney animated movies are marketed as family films. Movies to take your kids to. And kids typically aren’t all that interested in history lessons. This was Disney’s first, and so far only, attempt to make a movie out of actual historical events, and the screenwriters clearly didn’t really know how to convert history to something that would be entertaining to all ages. It didn’t help that Katzenberg was making a concerted effort to push all of the usual “kid’s stuff” out of the film. They ended up with a movie that’s too shallow to be an adult drama, and too slow and boring for the younger audience.
Viewing the movie from a modern eye, it also doesn’t help that, despite their best efforts, it still comes out as fairly stereotypical when it comes to the portrayal of its Native American characters. Sure, they’ve come a long way from Peter Pan, but they’ve really just traded one stereotype for another. Instead of the “Red Man” in a feathered headdress, instead we now have the mystical noble savage that communes with the spirits of the wilderness. And the title character ultimately doesn’t do much to effect the plot of the movie other than serve as the focal point of a love triangle and choose the white man in the end.
Pocahontas clearly had lofty ambitions, but I think there were way too many cooks in the kitchen on this one, and way too much studio interference in the plotting and writing department. It tries its best, but there’s a reason that it’s one of the films from the Renaissance that I haven’t rewatched much since it came out, and that we never got on VHS. I admire the film for the risks it took in being an unconventional type of Disney movie – it’s the sort of thing that Disney hadn’t done since Walt died – but it’s ultimately a misfire.
Animation: A- (the look of the film is the best thing about it)
Main Characters: C+ (both Pocahontas and John Smith are surprisingly bland, and Mel Gibson was stunt casting that didn’t really work this time and is even worse in hindsight for his drunk antics a couple years later)
Supporting Characters: B- (while not great, at least the mischief of the animal companions was more interesting than the main plot)
Villains: C (Governor Ratcliffe is the first major miss for Renaissance villains)
Songs: C+ (“Colors of the Wind” IS a good song, albeit definitely an Oscar-baity one. But the rest of them are fully forgettable)