In 1995 the world lay at Disney’s feet. The studio had amazed worldwide audiences with four critically acclaimed blockbusters in a row, and with no significant competition they were free to pursue any project they pleased. And so Disney surprised pundits by doing what they had never done before, a historical romance. Pocahontas featured no fairies or magical castles, just the very real American Indians, English settlers, and American wilderness. A gamble to say the least, but with such tremendous brand momentum it was surely one that would again succeed in capturing the public’s imagination.
Unfortunately a lukewarm critical reception would prove that, like Columbus before them, Disney had veered off course with the film. Had the new and improved mouse made its first turkey? Such was my impression back when I first saw Pocahontas. Next to an epic like Lion King it felt insubstantial, next to a laugh riot like Aladdin it seemed dry, and next to the visual delight of the likes of Beauty and the Beast it looked plain. Low on action and comedy, there wasn’t much for kids to latch on to, and the ending seemed a bit abrupt. However, watching this 10th Anniversary Edition, I find that the film has risen greatly in my estimation. Although still not near the top of the Disney heap, it is an engaging love story set against a convincing historical background. Certainly one of the quieter Disney vehicles, it is also perhaps one of their most adult tales, and so the passage of a decade may have helped hone my appreciation.
The film opens in 1607 London with an expedition of adventurers setting sail in the name of the mighty Virginia Company trading empire to seek a sure fortune of gold in the New World. Among them is the heroic, dashing Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson), who magnanimously explains he’s on board to kill “two or three” Indians if they make trouble. The portly, pompous Governor Ratcliffe, who hopes to get rich off the backs of his men, leads the expedition.
Meanwhile, in what is today the state of Virginia, the Indian chief Powhatan, in tired Disney tradition, urges his spirited dreamer of a daughter Pocahontas to settle down by taking the brave, stoic warrior Kocoum as a husband. Pocahontas is skeptical of the prospect, still dreaming of some exciting new adventure waiting for her. Word comes that strange pale savages have landed and Pocahontas goes to investigate. She observes Smith from afar and is intrigued by his adventuresome and gentle nature. They eventually come face to face, and Smith, enchanted by the nervous Pocahontas’s beauty, manages to draw her into conversation. Back at the camp Ratcliffe exhorts his men to dig up great riches, but they turn up nothing but Kocoum’s band of scouts, whom they engage in a brief firefight. While war drums beat on both sides, forbidden romance slowly blossoms between Pocahontas and Smith as they bridge the cultural divide.
Intriguingly, Pocahontas only pushes half of Disney’s usual feminist platform. Yes, Pocahontas demands on holding out for true love, but at the same time she contentedly gathers food while the men protect the village. No Mulan, she. Speaking of which, in light of the appalling liberties taken in the second Mulan film, it’s nice to see a high degree of historical accuracy here. Little attempt is made to soften the crude political sentiments of the time, as best displayed in the boldly un-PC song “Savages.” Not that the film presents Pocahontas’s story exactly as it is believed to have unfolded. The details of the courtship have been altered more than a little. The most glaring changes are moving Pocahontas above the age of consent and making her look more like Miss America than the wizened shrew suggested by her real-life portrait. Nevertheless the background is solid and one imagines that things could well have happened this way. Apart from the talking tree I mean.
While Jessica Rabbit (call me) has her fans, as far as realistic human characters go, Pocahontas still holds the title of Disney’s most lovely leading lady. In fact it was a bit of a scandal at the time of the film’s release that she might be a trifle too alluring for a family cartoon. As the protagonist, she follows the Disney conventions to a T, motherless and trying to find her place in life. Still, she is a very likeable character and important for her efforts to overcome prejudice. So is Gibson as Smith, bringing to his role that classic bravado and charm that viewers know well from the Lethal Weapon films and others. In fact, Gibson may deliver the most compelling action hero in Disney animation, eminently superior to those limp noodle protagonists in Atlantis and Treasure Planet.
The other human characters are of little interest, with the possible exception of the shamelessly avaricious Ratcliffe. His vanity and bombast are mildly diverting, as is an atypical hint of insecurity, but he still comes up short of the true heights of Disney villainy. As the humans are all a little stiff, it’s up to the trusty animal sidekicks to lighten things up. These are the irritable hummingbird Flit, mischievous raccoon Meeko, and pampered pug Percy, whose modestly amusing cat and mouse hijinks seem heavily inspired by the classic Tom and Jerry shorts.
Not only the film’s dramatic highlight, but one of animated cinema’s most romantic first meetings comes when Smith encounters Pocahontas through the heavy mist on the river, wary and hostile at first and then completely awestruck by her beauty. There’s little action of note, so the only other sparks are produced by the comedic squabbling amongst the pets. In the best gag Flit tries to dive-bomb Meeko’s behind only to miss him and get imbedded in Pocahontas’s canoe, which to his great distress is then immediately flipped over and plunges him underwater.
Pocahontas features some of the most realistic human forms animated by Disney, and maintains the studio’s high visual standards. It’s nothing sensational, however, perhaps because the backdrop of North American woodlands seems so familiar. As for the songs, opener “Virginia Company” is a likeable, modestly rousing number that might have come from a 50s Disney picture. The theatrical version of “Colors of the Wind” (as opposed to Vanessa Williams’ syrupy pop version) has a great melody, even if the lyrics seem like a hokey recycling of “Circle of Life.” The most compelling reason to pick up this DVD release may be the reinsertion of the theatrically cut “If I Never Knew You,” a phenomenal and tender ballad that explores the depth of Pocahontas and Smith’s feelings.
Since it’s a Disney special edition, you know Pocahontas is going to be packed with extras, but it’s not quite as impressive as the recent Platinum releases. The commentary with the producer and directors notes a few interesting details on the film’s production, including its more comedic origins, but mostly it just states the obvious. Disney’s Art Project, the Follow Your Heart game, and the “Colors of the Wind” and “Just Around the River Bend” karaoke clips provide activities for young children. Vanessa Williams’ “Colors of the Wind” music video is rather dull, but she sure is purty. Out of all the extras, The Making of Pocahontas is the biggest disappointment, more a fluffy promotional piece than an actual documentary. One item of interest is Gibson’s revelation that Disney placed hidden video cameras around the recording studio and later used images taken of actors as models for character animation. Production displays some early artwork, and Music gives some interesting detail on the collaborative effort involved in creating the score. Design is far and away the best extra, offering quite literally a ton of fantastic concept art for the main characters and backgrounds. The deleted scenes are in storyboard form and rather forgettable. Finally The Release is full of publicity materials created for the theatrical release, including video of its grand Central Park premiere.
While I can’t rank the Pocahontas 10th Anniversary Edition among the must-have Disney DVDs, it would still make a nice addition to a Disney collection. Watch it with an open mind and the charming romance will draw you in. This one is probably more for Mom and Dad though, as Junior is likely to get restless waiting for Meeko’s big song and dance number that never comes. So put him to bed early, and let the film set the mood. Too bad it ends just when it’s getting good. Art imitates life once more.