The early nineties saw a renaissance in the Disney Animation studio. After a decade of uninspired flops, titles like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King revitalised the studio with their sharp comedy, flawless animation, and (most importantly) huge box office takings. Each was more successful than the last. Indeed, The Lion King was released in 1994 to become the eighth highest grossing film ever (and the most profitable animated film of all time). Then came Pocahontas.
Well, every winning streak has to end sometime...
The titular character of Pocahontas is a young Native American woman living in a small Coastal tribe at the dawn of the 17th century. Ordered by her father (the tribe’s chief) to marry a cold-hearted, stone-faced warrior, Pocahontas naturally responds by fleeing into the forest, seeking the counsel of a wise tree spirit, and singing a few Broadway numbers.
Meanwhile, a ship full of British explorers lands nearby. Leader of the expedition, toffee-nosed aristocrat and all-round scoundrel Governor Ratcliffe is determined to claim the land for his King, whilst keeping for himself the vast stores of buried gold that he is expecting to find. Also aboard is John Smith, a charming-rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold charged with handling any “savages” that the expedition may encounter. Smith is a strapping, square-jawed character who sounds an awful lot like Mel Gibson.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Smith and Pocahontas stumble upon one another in a scene replete with longing glances, slow-motion hair-tossing and soaring violins. Somewhat surprisingly, the language barrier is obliterated quicker than the background lyricist can wail “Listen with your heart,” and, within two minutes of meeting, the pair are conversing in perfect English.
The attraction between Pocahontas and Smith is threatened when hostilities break out between the colonists and the natives. Will their budding love bloom? Will the greedy Ratcliffe get his just desserts? Will the characters inexplicably burst into song every three minutes? If you can’t guess the answers to these questions, you’ve never watched a Disney film before.
It’s easy to be critical of Pocahontas. It’s supposedly based on a true story, but is as factual as an episode of Star Trek. Pocahontas was actually 11 years old when she met Smith. Rather than being a gorgeous, long haired beauty, portraits depict her as a severe-looking, heavyset, tattooed, BALD woman. Jamestown (the story’s locale) is a flat area totally lacking the mountains, cliffs and waterfalls that dominate the film’s visuals. Space prohibits me from continuing…
Historical inaccuracies aside, the endless succession of trite, saccharine songs are wearying. I have nothing against musicals - the tunes in Aladdin and The Lion King were, for the most part, brilliantly composed and often hilarious – but Pocahontas is lumped with some of the most sentimental, heavy-handed tripe that I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard Celine Dion albums!).
But perhaps, in this instance, such criticisms are misplaced. Unlike much of Disney’s recent output, which is aimed at children and adults alike (see Tarzan or Mulan), this one is strictly for the kiddies. An audience too young to recognise a gross abundance of cliché, manipulative sentimentality, over-the-top political correctness and an amazing disregard for historical fact should enjoy the film greatly. Older viewers prepared to cut the film some slack (like myself) will be entertained by the flawless animation and some clever visual gags. Punters searching for adult-friendly fare should dust off their copies of Shrek, Tarzan or Toy Story.