Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 23 June 1995
Pocahontas was a bit of a departure for Disney, coming after the wildly successful The Lion King. The two films are very different, similar only in that they are both musicals. Pocahontas was loosely based on historical events, focused on human characters (the few animal characters never spoke), and featured a softer, smoother, more muted animation style.
The story is very straightforward. Pocahontas is a young Native American woman, daughter of Chief Powhatan. Settlers from England, including the noble and adventurous John Smith and the greedy Governor Ratcliffe arrive and there is immediate distrust between the natives and the English. When Smith and Pocahontas meet, they fall in love and must bridge the gap between their two cultures.
The film is based, however loosely, on the historical accounts given by Smith himself of his time in the Virginia colony, which are themselves thought to be mostly fabrications. The liberties taken by Disney when adapting these accounts were significant enough to produce quite an outcry from certain segments of the public. While Disney had taken similar liberties with their source materials many times in the past (including Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book), this was the first time they'd done it with historical events (even if partially fabricated by John Smith).
The key to watching these Disney Animated Features that have been heavily adapted is to forget that the original source material and focus only on what Disney has presented on the screen and let it speak for itself. This is, in fact, true of many films, not just Disney's, yet it caused an unusual uproar with Pocahontas.
Regardless, on its own, Pocahontas is probably the worst of Disney's animated offerings since The Black Cauldron in 1985. That's not to say it's bad -- not by any means. But it's, frankly, a little boring. It has its moments, helped along by the three small animals around for comic relief, but the story can get confusing and seems a bit plodding at times.
Alan Menken was once again the composer, with the capable Stephen Schwartz (creator of the music for Godspell and Pippin) working on the lyrics. The songs are adequate, and some are good, but none are as inspired as much of Menken's earlier work for Disney. Notably, Mel Gibson, the voice of John Smith, made his singing debut on "Mine, Mine, Mine," performing the part well. As per tradition, the movie's ballad was recorded in a pop arrangement to be played over the end credits; this time, it was Vanessa Williams on "Colors of the Wind." Jon Secada and Shanice also recorded the duet "If I Never Knew You," a song that was cut from the film.
As mentioned, Mel Gibson voiced John Smith, and was easily the biggest name in the cast. Also on hand were David Odgen Stiers, previously Cogsworth (Beauty and the Beast), as Governor Ratcliffe; and Christian Bale and Billy Connolly in small roles as English sailors.
The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King all won Oscars for both Best Music, Original Score and Best Music, Song; Pocahontas kept the tradition alive. The winning song was, predictably, the ballad "Colors of the Wind." That song also won a Grammy and a Golden Globe.
After the success of The Return of Jafar, the direct-to-video sequel to Aladdin, Disney did the same for Pocahontas. Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World told the tale of Pocahontas' journey to England, where she fell in love with a new man -- John Rolfe (who in real life became her husband).
While a fine film by most any standard, Pocahontas had the misfortune of being the next Disney Animated Feature after The Lion King. Next to that outstanding earlier film, Pocahontas pales significantly. Now that audiences were once again used to seeing such high-quality, entertaining features from Disney, this film seemed a step down -- however small. It was certainly the beginning of a decline in revenues from their animated films, but it can hardly be blamed for failing to top the enomorous success of The Lion King. Perhaps Disney had started to become a victim of its own successes...
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.