This is the fifth addition in an ongoing series that will form a comprehensive review of the ‘official’ Walt Disney Animation Studio’s canon – from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through 2016’s Moana and beyond.
For reference, here is a complete list of the films in the Disney canon.
- Film: Pocahontas
- Year: 1995
- Director(s): Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
- Length: 82 Minutes
- Source Material: Life and Legend of Pocahontas (1595 – 1617)
- Official Budget: $55 Million
- Official Box Office: $346.1 Million
After the box office/critical success of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, topped with the first animated film nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards; Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was eager to replicate that success quickly. Already in early development by Mike Gabriel (of The Rescuers Down Under), Pocahontas was modified to better align with Katzenberg’s vision for a Best Picture nominee. Leads Pocahontas and John Smith were rewritten, with a more mature romance as the story centerpiece. Wacky animation and goofy storylines were dropped in favor of politically correct, gentle storytelling. Between the two active Disney productions, Katzenberg declared that Pocahontas would be the prestige hit, whereas The Lion King was too experimental.
Domestic box office revenue brought in $141.5 Million, enough for 4th highest grossing of the year; but foreign grosses were less than expected. Pocahontas was a disappointment compared to the previous year’s The Lion King. The film also failed to live up to the chairman’s lofty critical expectations, as there was no Best Picture nomination for Pocahontas.
Pocahontas proves to be a more mature film than Disney’s typical offering, as was Katzenberg’s wish. There aren’t many zany moments; instead scene after scene of muted reflection over one’s journey in love and in life, and in the struggle brought on by clashing cultures. Pocahontas models the themes of Romeo and Juliet, but this wasn’t followed through completely. Instead, this decidedly adult story will lose most viewers young and old alike. Their isn’t enough ‘fun’ to be had for younger viewers, and adults will find Pocahontas‘ story shallow.
The best thing to come from Disney’s Pocahontas is the heroine’s decision to not end up with John Smith in the end. Serving as a strong female lead for young viewers, Pocahontas shows that a woman doesn’t need to identify herself through her relationships with the men in her life.
Disney is an animated film studio with a target audience in the range of ages 5-13. A great Disney film hits that range, and adds a few extra winks for parents to be able to relate to.
Pocahontas does the opposite with its’ characters. Pocahontas, John Smith, and the like are not something an 8 year old could relate to or even truly understand. The only ‘fun’ characters to be found, Pocahontas’ pets Meeko and Flit along with Governor Ratcliffe’s dog Percy only make minor appearances. Their lack of depth (and impact) is exacerbated by the absence of speaking roles for each. Governor Ratcliffe, as the greedy Brit come to rob the New World, is not memorable among the pantheon of Disney villains. He might be better than some, but he is no Cruella De Vil.
Animators continued the matured tone of Pocahontas with realism character and scene designs; drawing inspiration from the real-life Jamestown. Lovely to look at, with autumn tones of yellow, orange and green throughout. Pocahontas has several eye-catching scenes highlighted by the ‘Colors of the Wind’ set piece. In regards to character design; of particular note was Grandmother Willow, both innovative in design and imaginative in its inclusive use of nature as a theme.
For all its’ shortcomings, Pocahontas‘ soundtrack stands the test of time. Famed composer Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast) teamed up with lyricist Stephen Schwartz to deliver this multi-hit soundtrack.
‘Just Around the Riverbend’ is a crowd-pleasing broadway style hit centered on choosing one’s future; and ‘Savages’ is a passably interesting commentary on cultural struggles – dueted by the Natives and Settlers.
But without a doubt, ‘Colors of the Wind’ is the mega-hit that everyone remembers from this film; a rallying cry for understanding the differences in people, with a catchy sing-along chorus and soaring crescendo. Pocahontas went on to win two Academy Awards, for Best Musical or Comedy Score and Best Original Song (for ‘Colors of the Wind’).
If it weren’t for the outstanding Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz soundtrack, most notably the iconic ‘Colors of the Wind’, Pocahontas would be easily forgettable with its’ middling story, animation, and characters.