Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Disney's Pocahontas

Pocahontas is one of those films that I didn't really appreciate when I was younger. It's still not my favorite Disney movie, but now that I'm older I can understand a few more concepts of the movie. When I was younger it just seemed like a Disney history lesson. Kids do not want history lessons in their movies. Trust me, I have to try and teach kids the stuff. Fortunately for me, I wasn't learning anything for real because almost everything that happens in the movie didn't actually happen. I'll get to that later. While some of the events may have been a bit different, Pocahontas still has its feet stuck in the ground of history. After all, this was the first Disney movie to be based on a real person (No, the Little Mermaid was not real). You don't have to love or to have studied history to enjoy this movie, though. Pocahontas is a beautifully animated and moral story about what can happen when you put yourself in someone else's shoes. It has great songs, and though it has a serious tone, it still has plenty of humor in it. All this makes for a classic Disney movie that is still loved by kids and adults alike.

I honestly wasn't able to find too much on the production of Pocahontas, so I'll just list the things I found out. Like I said in the last post, Pocahontas was started around the same time as The Lion King, with a lot of the more distinguished animators choosing to work on it, finding it more prestigious. They were right and wrong. If they wanted to work on a film that was successful and would be cited as one of the best of all time, then they bet on the wrong horse. If they wanted to work on a film that was expertly stylized and had a more serious tone, then they did choose the right project. Production took a good five years because of the way they chose to animate the movie. In fact, Pocahontas is labelled one of the hardest movies to animate for the Disney studios. With its complex color schemes, angular shapes, and facial expressions, it took the animators quite a bit of time to really get it all finished. It paid off however, as Pocahontas is cited as one of the most beautifully and realistically drawn of any character in the Disney canon. If you want a type of animation to compare it to, just think about 101 Dalmatians or Sleeping Beauty. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz took on the music for Pocahontas. Together they wrote such stand outs like "Just Around the River Bend," "Colors of the Wind,""Mine, Mine, Mine" and "Savages." The songs dealt with life choices, appreciating things that you don't understand, mindless greed, and jaded perspectives, respectively. Howard Ashman had planned on writing the songs for the movie with Menken but unfortunately passed away partway into Aladdin's production. The song "If I Never Knew You" was cut from the film, even though it had been fully animated and only lacked color. Disney had done a test screening and kids apparently found it boring. It found it's way back into the movie when the 10th anniversary DVD was released.

Since this was Disney's first historical account, they went all out to try and get an accurate representation of what things were like back then. They researched guns, clothing, boats, Native American culture, and a bit about Pocahontas herself. In an attempt to make it as accurate as possible, Disney hired Native Americans to help them get the history and culture right. This apparently didn't help since the movie was still labeled a complete fabrication by prominent Native American activist who claimed Disney watered down the wrongs done to the Native American people and how Disney stuck to basic Native American stereotypes in the movie. That's the problem with doing anything history based: someone will always say that it's wrong. Have you heard of a historical movie where everyone was happy with the end result? Nope! Some historian has to point out that there weren't those types of guns in that decade or that the word "Radical" was not uttered by Joan of Arc. Details, details. So, if you decide to someday make a historical movie, prepare to get dumped on by someone.

To help in authenticity, Disney also hired Native Americans to do the voices for most of the characters in the movie. Irene Bedard provided both the voice and the physical model for Pocahontas. John Smith was voiced by none other than Mel Gibson. Strangely this was something I didn't know about until many years later. This was the first film that Gibson actually sang in. Bale voiced Thomas, and would later go on to play John Rolfe in The New World. David Ogden Stiers, though not a very recognizable name, voiced Ratcliffe, along with many other characters in Disney movies such as Cogsworth, the Archdeacon in The Hunchback, and Mr. Harcourt in Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Flit the hummingbird and Meeko the raccoon were supposed to be talking characters, but in an attempt to make a more serious film, they became mute. Instead, Meeko is "voiced" by John Kassir, best known as the voice of the Crypt Keeper, and Flit is voiced by the legend himself, Frank Welker. A sad note is that John Candy had done a bunch of lines for a Pocahontas sidekick named Redfeather, a turkey. Unfortunately, Candy passed away in 1994 and the idea was scrapped.

So remember when I said that the story isn't exactly accurate? Well, here is the real story of Pocahontas. Well, at least a shortened version. John Smith and his fellow Englishmen land in the new world in 1607. Like with most expeditions in the new world, the Europeans have a few encounters with the natives, some friendly and some not so friendly. Smith was apparently minding his own business, floating down a river, when he was captured by a relative of Chief Powhatan. Smith describes in his journal talking to Powhatan and a large feast that takes place. And that's about it. It's not until a later letter about the capture that he mentions the chief's daughter Pocahantas saving him from execution. Many historians express doubt as to the Pocahantas saving him part of his story, mainly because he had a similar thing happen when he was captured by Turks in Hungary. Smith was most likely remembering the earlier event and reused the story to make Pocahontas more infamous. The first account of him just talking to Powhatan is probably all that is accurate about his many accounts, as Powhatan would want to speak to the settlers about why they were there. There is proof that Smith was friends with Pocahontas before the episode however, as she and a few others would come by every once and awhile and bring food to the settlers. This was before the people of Jamestown got greedy and attempted to take more land and food. Some have the theory that the event did happen but Smith misunderstood it. Historians argue that he was part of a ritual of death and rebirth and didn't know it. Smith "died" and was reborn as part of the tribe. This theory, along with many others, has a lot of holes in it, so no one is really quite sure what really happened. Darn you, History! Smith was later injured in a gunpowder explosion and taken back to England. Pocahontas thought he was dead until she found him years later in England, she being already married to John Rolfe.

The important thing to take from this is that Pocahontas was likely around ten years old when this all happened, so she and John Smith were not lovers in any way. Her interest in John Smith would of been nothing but childhood curiosity. Smith would have been around 27 and sporting a full beard. Sorry ladies, but he didn't look like the Disney John Smith. She apparently married Kocoum in 1612, but that probably ended when she was captured by the English in 1613. So, let's go over this: Pocahontas was not a woman in her late teens, early 20's, she did in fact marry Kocoum, she and John Smith did not have a romantic relationship, and her saving John Smith probably didn't happen. Sorry if I ruined the Disney version for you. So, you can see how Disney took a few liberties with their story. It's not entirely their fault, as there were versions of the Pocahontas story with John Smith and her as love interests for quite a long time before Disney came around. The one thing the movie did get right, besides some character names and places, was the fact that John Smith is hurt and is taken back to England in the end. No happy ending for Pocahontas. That seems a bit odd for a Disney movie. Also, the villain doesn't die. That is a rarity in the newer Disney movies. A bunch in the older ones don't meet their end, but it seems Disney is getting a little darker as the years go by.

Pocahontas premiered at Central Park in New York City attracting a crowd of 100,000 people. It still holds the record for attendance at a premiere. The movie came out in theaters June, 16th 1995, garnering good reviews and became a box office success. In the end, the movie made $141 million domestically, which isn't bad for a Disney movie, but paled in comparison to The Lion King. Fortunately, no one expected Pocahontas to beat The Lion King. The reviews were alright, but not stellar. Critics praised the fantastic animation but didn't like the story as much. The much publicized reaction from Native Americans probably didn't help with some of the reviews. It's still up there in the Disney Renaissance, though. I think it was the more serious tone that hurt the film, as I know I really didn't care for it as a kid. Disney apparently didn't learn its lesson as it took on another serious film in The Hunchback of Notre Dame the very next year.


  1. Wow, thanks. I didnt know most of this, and im very happy that someone took the time and libirty to write it down. I do agree... growing up it wasnt my favroite disney film, but as i grew it got more better when i started understanding what they where saying. Also what they also failed to mention in the second film is that, Pocohantas Birthed a son and named him john, and that she was sick and so was the baby. And as she was returning to Virgina when she was 23, She died onboard. Oh, and she was also said to be 13-15 Years old when she meet John Smith, but honest i dont believe that her and john smith has a romantic history, but i agree it was most likly out of curiousity, but it could of been just a regular crush. Either then that your very accurate on your information and i couldnt of said any better my self. =D

  2. I can't believe you didn't like Pocahontas as a kid! It was my absolute favorite, and I know I wasn't alone, my friends and I were obsessed. I was about 6 when it came out and I immediately memorized all the songs and ran through the words singing. I think what drew me in was the focus on nature and it's importance. Also it was the first real American disney princess, it was our heritage and I felt very connected to that. Maybe this was because I grew up in Maryland and New Jersey which are very Algonquin areas, but I really felt this was the most legit disney princess. She was a real person and she was really American. Looking back on it, I guess it was more on the violent side but I think that was important to convey. Even a first grader, which I was at the time knows that there were serious conflicts between Native American and earlier settlers and no way can you tell a story about those groups without violence. By far one of the best Disney movies of all time, I stand by that almost 10 years later

  3. i knew a lot about pocahontas before watching the movie and was really disapointed and i can see why they aged her to have a romantic relashinship with pocahontas and john smith disney all ways have to have some romance in there movie

  4. i knew a lot about pocahontas before watching the movie and was really disapointed and i can see why they aged her to have a romantic relashinship with pocahontas and john smith. disney all ways have to have some romance in there movie