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Disney Canon Countdown 33: ‘Pocahontas’

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It seems you can’t talk about Disney’s Pocahontas without mentioning the history. She was, after all, a woman who really existed. A chief’s daughter that ‘saved’ John Smith (though even this is heavily debated) and later lived in England as the wife of John Rolfe. I’ve actually never paid much attention to either side of the historical arguments. She lived over four hundred years ago, and historians love to debate their findings. If you want gritty realism, I would suggest A New World; if you want a romanticized family version then you should, of course, look no further than Disney.

I would, however, like to point out here that Disney hired Native American voice actors and consultants. Russell Means (who voiced Chief Powhatan) referred to the film as the “single best representation of American Indians that Hollywood has ever done.”

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We are all fully aware that Pocahontas has become something of a legend. Story after story has been passed down. Disney’s version is just another interpreted story about this “princess.” Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard) was a strong female lead long before Merida and even Mulan. Her look is different from Disney’s previous princesses. She has a strong jaw, smaller eyes, and an athletic body. She’s spirited and brave. Both commendable traits but some viewers claim she’s dull because she has no personality. She’s likable but is she relatable? It’s not like we see tons of Pocahontas adult cosplays and children’s costumes around these days. The big difference with Pocahontas and the other Disney Princesses is that she really existed. Somehow this takes away the enchanting fantasy elements when we think of Disney.

John Smith is a decent hero too. One that needs to be guided in the right direction but one whose heart is in the right place. I’ve always loved his quick quips. In the face of death, he claims he’s “gotten out of worse scrapes than this. Can’t think of anything right now, but…” It’s lines like this that I love, but in doing my research, I actually found out that his best friend Thomas (voiced by Christian Bale) is actually the more popular of the two Disney hunks. Who knew?

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I was a fan of Pocahontas growing up. I put feathers in my hair and climbed trees as a little girl but only in recent years has the movie become one of my top favorites. Is it possible this movie is one of the most mature of the Disney movies? Think of the love story. A man and woman from different worlds manage to connect with each other and stand on their own as individuals. So much that they don’t even “live happily ever after” together. Think of the conflict. Invaders to a land that is already inhabited causes a grievous war. Not exactly a mermaid and a handsome prince kind of story, is it? For me, the maturity comes from the dialogue. When I think of this movie I always think of Powhatan’s speech:

“We’ve all come here with anger in our hearts, but she comes with courage and understanding. From this day forward, if there is to be more killing, it will not start with me.”

So I’ve been praising the maturity of the film’s story and the lead character but what’s bad about it? It’s the blending of the Disney traits with this maturity. After we meet Pocahontas (when she dives into the water) we quickly see the comic relief. The raccoon Meeko attempts to jump into the water with comedic effect and this screams “family movie.” If you’ve seen the film, you may recall Chief Powhatan talking to Pocahontas about her mother. It’s pretty heartfelt and earnest but during this scene, we have Meeko in the background getting into trouble. Both are great separately but don’t work well together. Was Disney trying to hard to capture the magic and success of movies like Beauty and the Beast? They were, after all, nearing the end of Disney Renaissance.

Now let us get to the best part: the music. As soon as I listened to the soundtrack, I declared the score to be the best I’d ever heard from Disney. I love how the song “If I Never Knew You”— regrettably cut from the theatrical release—is teased throughout the film, so when the music crescendos in the end sequence, it really pays off. However, I do have to agree with film critic Roger Ebert who said that “because the romantic theme ‘If I Never Knew You’ was cut from the movie… their relationship emerges rather abruptly” and makes a disappointing climax. Though I wouldn’t go that far, I must urge you to seek out the version with the deleted song. It expresses more about their feelings for each other (as all good love songs should) and the reprise of the song makes for a much more satisfying ending:

The songs are true 90’s Disney Broadway songs, curtsey of Stephen Swartz and Alan Menken. This was the first time they had worked together, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. Meken had the heart, and Swartz had all the research and wit. Lines like “You can own the Earth and still/All you’ll own is Earth” from “Colors of the Wind” are particularly clever. Menken described the song as “one of the most important songs” he’d ever written as it was the first song he’d written with Schwartz. In keeping with this theme of awkwardly blending maturity with child-friendly Disney motifs, Menken went on to say, “It’s a very serious song, but there was no getting humor into Pocahontas. God knows we tried. We wrote a song for Grandmother Willow to try to add some comedy, but we just couldn’t. The only other option would have been to give a song to the pug and the raccoon, and they don’t even speak!”

Lastly, but by no means least, we have to talk about the animation. The waterfall, the mist, the shadows, the backgrounds and the character expressions. It’s just beautiful. It makes my heart ache thinking that we might never see the likes of this kind of traditional Disney animation again. There’s more to this scene than simply beauty. Among many other things, animation is about conveying story and emotion through visuals. The way this whole scene is paced and staged—the way the quietness of the scene steals our attention—makes me wonder if this kind of direction can only be achieved perfectly in animation.

There are many things to say about Pocahontas. Perhaps too much since the historical inaccuracy and portrayal of Native Americans always enter the conversation. It should be commended for its strong lead and should definitely be praised for its animation and music. But does the serious tone of the story turn kids off? Is it the Disney Princess traits—or Pocahontas herself—that turn off an older audience? Whatever the reason for the lack of huge popularity in the Disney Princess franchise, I like to think it lies comfortably in the middle of the Disney canon movies and as part of the studio’s “classic” series.

What do you think of Pocahontas? Is she one of your favorite Disney Princesses?

Edited by: Kelly Conley

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About MJ Edwards

MJ is a writing and film graduate who loves to relax with scented candles and herbal teas. She is a dog-walker by day and a pie-maker by night. She loves movies starring Christopher Reeve and her favorite animated film is Meet the Robinsons. MJ also loves anything that LAIKA and Tim Burton come out with.