And the Winner Isn’t…Pocahontas
It has been 25 years since 1995 and the release of Disney's Pocahontas. This film is the 6th in the era known as the “Disney Renaissance,” a period of huge success for the company from 1989-1999. During the 70’s and for a majority of the 80’s, Disney was in a dry spell. With the success of The Little Mermaid in 1989, Disney turned the tide back in their favor. By the time 1991 came and Beauty and the Beast nabbed them an Oscar nom, Disney put themselves on a mission. They wanted not only to get nominated, but to win the Best Picture category.
Disney works on movies for many years at a time, some of them concurrently. At the time, they were trying to calculate the perfect Oscar winner, they were also making The Lion King, sharing the resources between the projects. The buzz amongst the Disney studios at the time was that Pocahontas was the movie you wanted to attach your name to if you wanted to be a part of history! The first animated movie to win Best Picture was going to be momentous.
So, what happened? In the end, The Lion King is the movie that is more fondly remembered. Out of the ten Renaissance films, the first handful are the most significant: Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast, Lion King, and 1992’s Aladdin, are the big four of this era. Every attempt afterwards never reached the same highs - both critically and financially - as these four. The Renaissance ends in 1999 with Tarzan, the last real big hit the company has for a while. Pocahontas hits squarely after the midpoint, as the sixth movie of this iconic era, and it pretty much signifies the beginning of the fall.
The reason Pocahontas misses the mark involves several factors. The first is the story. Okay, actually the first is obviously the simplistic approach to hundreds of years of racial tension between colonizers and the native people ravaged in the wake of concepts like manifest destiny and the White Man's Burden (thank you to Eastchester High School’s Social Studies department!). But, the story is nothing unique. Five years earlier, Dances with Wolves won the Best Picture with a surprisingly similar story to the one here. A white man finds himself in the world of what he perceives to be uncivilized savages. He decides that there should be compromise and acceptance between their groups. There is some admission of mistreatment to the native community, but it is mostly chalked up to the machinations of a few bad apples, and thank goodness we have our good white people to show that contrast.
In an attempt to appease many different audiences, Pocahontas ends up appealing to no one. To appeal to grown-ups and the Academy, the romance between our leads was put front and center, and our protagonists were aged up (for Pocahontas) and down (for John Smith). The animators looked to real-life supermodels for the designs. This creates a Pocahontas who doesn’t really look native and a John Smith who’s blonde and skinny and young. The main thing our heroes have in common with one another is their hotness. They also are both insanely lacking in a developed personality. They magically learn to communicate by listening with their hearts (damn, Rosetta Stone you got competition).
But to appeal to younger audiences we are given multiple animal sidekicks and a fairly simplistic plot. Also, the historical weight of genocide and years of ethnocentric legislation is completely lost because the story has to be sanded down so much.
The villain of the movie, Ratcliff, fits the concept of the foppish coded-gay villain, made popular with Ursula in the Little Mermaid (based off of drag queen Divine), Scar in The Lion King, and even Jafar, who’s interest in marrying Jasmine is almost entirely political and lacks total sexual interest in Aladdin. He likes to wear glittery outfits and is followed around by an even gayer lackey.
Pocahontas did accomplish winning an Academy Award for score and original song, and it does have some amazing music. Disney does not slack in that regard. “Colors of the Wind” is a karaoke standard and Disney classic, up there with songs from even better movies. I like the music of Pocahontas better than the music of The Lion King (which is a better movie story-wise). However, if you want to get a story about an indigenous pre-Colonial tribal princess going off on an adventure and defying her father, all the while sporting some great music, watch Moana.
(If you'd like to hear more on this topic, watch Lindsay Ellis' review of Pocahontas here.)
Marco is a comedian, writer, and underemployed New Yorker trying to make it in this damn world. He enjoys fruitlessly pursuing love on dating apps and keeping track of all of the movies he’s seen on Letterboxd.