When Pocahontas was released in 1995, it proved to be something of a turning point for the Disney Renaissance era. While Disney gave themselves a huge pat on the back for making their first film “inspired by historical figures and events,” it ended up being something of a black sheep to audiences and critics, who found it disappointing compared to its predecessors. Today, Disney seems to market the Pocahontas character more than the film itself, a possible sign that the film has even fallen out of favor with Disney themselves. Although many of the critiques are justified, Pocahontas is a better movie than it gets credit for.
Disney’s interpretation of Pocahontas sees the film’s namesake heroine (Irene Bedard), a young Powhatan “princess” who crosses paths with Englishman John Smith (Mel Gibson), as the English make their way into the new world.
Pocahontas and Smith form a friendship, and later romance, that leads Smith to reevaluate his beliefs of the native people. Meanwhile, tension between the Powhatans and the English is brewing, as the conniving Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) – who is leading the English expedition – plans to ravage the new world of its riches by any means necessary.
Much has been said about the historical inaccuracies of the film (though the presence of a magic, talking tree probably indicates Disney wasn’t aiming for accuracy), but when taken for its own merits, it’s actually a pretty solid story, if maybe not a groundbreaking one.
Pocahontas herself, while maybe not the most unique heroine in terms of personality, is at least a strong enough main character to carry the story. John Smith is similarly unremarkable in personality, falling into Disney’s usual ‘Mr. Perfect’ archetype. But at least he learns a lesson or two before fully surrendering to the trope.
Ratcliffe is a fun, though terribly underutilized villain. He has a little more purpose for his evil deeds than most Disney villains (he’s described as a “failed social climber,” with his current expedition being his last chance to prove his qualities), but he never gets much time to interact with the heroes. It almost feels like Ratcliffe is part of a sidestory of the film, instead of its primary antagonist.
True to the Disney form, a group of comedic sidekicks are involved, to add a little more humor and personality to the film. Pocahontas is often joined by a raccoon named Miko and a hummingbird named Flit who, along with Ratcliffe’s dog Percy, provide some cartoonish antics, which can be fun, but feel a tad unnecessary this time around. But it’s Ratcliffe’s naive and well-meaning manservant Wiggins (also voiced by Stiers) who is probably the film’s funniest aspect.
The soundtrack to Pocahontas is probably the one piece of the film that even its harshest critics can appreciate to some degree. I would argue that the film’s centerpiece number “Colors of the Wind” is better than any one song from The Lion King, as it sums up the film’s message in one beautiful musical piece. “Just Around the River Bend” isn’t quite as good, but nonetheless catchy. “Mine, Mine, Mine” serves as Ratcliffe’s obligatory villain song, and it’s actually a pretty fun one, until John Smith strangely gets a verse in it and it loses some of its villainous charm. “Savages” serves as the film’s climactic musical number, and is effectively frightening in its lyrics.
The animation is another highlight. The characters in Pocahontas were animated to look a little more realistic than the other Disney film’s of the 90s (with the exceptions of the sidekicks and Ratcliffe, who retain a more cartoonish look to magnify their roles in the story). The characters have detailed facial expressions and a richness in their movements that give Pocahontas a distinct animation style among Disney films. It’s all the more eye-popping during the musical numbers (Colors of the Wind adopts a painting visual style, while Savages utilizes aggressive color schemes).
Despite the visual and musical heights, Pocahontas still has a few bumps in its story. Some elements, such as Pocahontas magically learning to speak English by “listening to her heart,” are a bit too convenient. The overall message, while certainly well intentioned, can be a little too loud for its own good. As previously stated, Pocahontas and John Smith aren’t particularly interesting, and Ratcliffe, while a fun villain, could have used more screen time.
Pocahontas may not quite live up to its revered siblings of the Disney Renaissance, but it still provides a good piece of Disney entertainment brought to life through lovely animation and songs.