Friday, July 12, 2013

Movie Review: Pocahontas (1995)

Stars: 2 out of 5
Pros: Beautiful songs and great animation
Cons: Political messages ruin any entertainment for me
The Bottom Line
History rewritten
Political agenda
Skip this Disney film

Mid-90's Political Correctness Run Amuck

The Disney animation resurgence reached its peak with The Lion King.  The next year saw a movie that began to mark the decline.  While still a financial success, it’s easy to point to Pocahontas as the moment when things started to go south.  The thing is, the movie isn’t helped by the political agenda hidden in the beautiful animation.

The story is a very, very loose interpretation of history.  As such, it follows the voyage of the first settlers to land in Virginia.  The movie actually opens in England as John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson) joins an expedition to found the colony.  The expedition is under the leadership of Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers).  We even meet a crewman named Thomas (Christian Bale).  As we travel the sea, we get to experience first hand how brave and noble John Smith is.

Then we join Pocahontas (Irene Bedard) in the ideal world of uncolonized America.  Her father, the chief, has just returned from a victory over their foes.  His right hand man, Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall), has just asked for Pocahontas’ hand in marriage.  But Pocahontas is not happy with that arrangement.  She is restless and a free spirit, longing for adventure.

And that’s when she sees the strange clouds that are the sails of the ship arriving.  While out scouting, John Smith meets her.  The two form an instant connection and start sharing parts of their language and culture with each other.  Will they be able to form a peace between their people when so many are clamoring for war?

Try as I might, I have a hard time separating myself from the bad history here to enjoy the movie as pure entertainment.  I will say that the songs are gorgeous, well most of them.  They certainly help advance the story, and I can get “Colors of the Wind” stuck in my head for days.  There was a love song written for Pocahontas and John Smith that is available as a bonus feature, at least on the new Blu-Ray release.  Why it wasn’t incorporated back into the movie like was done on the last DVD is a mystery to me.

I must also give the film credit for the gorgeous animation.  This movie is a perfect example of why we must not let the art of hand drawn animation die.  The forests of the new world are so beautiful to look at.

And the voice cast does a fine job with their parts.  The Native Americans were all voiced by real Native Americans, who praised the film for the authenticity of the portrayals of Native American culture.  (Ironically, other Native American groups complained about the stereotypes.  Proves you just can’t win.)

Then there are the animal characters.  They add some humor to the proceedings and the film is fairly serious, so I certainly think the film needs it.  And the way they parallel what is happening or should be happening between the humans is a nice bit of storytelling.

However, they are also a prime example of what was going wrong with Disney animation at this point.  They had become too formulaic.  In their efforts to crank out one movie a year, they went to the same well to create characters.  Dashing, virtuous hero?  Check.  Independent woman who wants adventure and won’t settle for just any husband?  Check.  Cute animal sidekicks to provide some laughs?  Check.  Change the names and the setting and we’ve got a new movie.

So, now let’s get into the history or lack there of.  I will grant you not much is known about Pocahontas until later in her life (after this film was set), but what is suspected is far different from what is presented here.  For one thing, she was most likely about 8 years younger.  There was never romance between her and John Smith.  And while she did save his life, some historians even protest that much.  Add to that the fact that they kill off a character who doesn’t die during this time period, and you’ve got a work of fiction.

Now, I have no problem with historical fiction; in fact, I love the genre.  However, you need to adhere to the truth as much as you can.  In reality, this was nothing like reality.  Since the Disney version of things gets so engrained in our culture, that’s dangerous.  It’s one thing when looking at time periods but something completely different when real people are changed so dramatically.  And with no disclaimer to warn people that what they are seeing is purely fiction.

And don’t even get me started on Grandmother Willow, the living, talking tree that gives Pocahontas advice.  In a fairy tale context, I’d have no problems with this character, but again we've got that history thing going on.

Couple this with the other messages in the film.  There is the pro-environmental message contains in “Colors of the Wind” and the way the two cultures are presented.  The English are obviously bad for wanting to take resources and the Indians are good for wanting to keep them around to enjoy.  Mind you, I firmly believe that destroying the Earth is a horrid idea and should never be done.  But there needs to be a balance between the two sides, and that balance isn’t presented here.

Furthermore, our villain of the piece, Ratcliffe, is a one note, greedy jerk.  And because of him, the only white man not painted with a horrid brush is John Smith.  I mean, look at the song “Savages,” which both sides sing as they are going off to war.  The white men are singing it because they think the Native Americans are hiding gold and are going to kill Smith out of spite.  The Native Americans are singing it because one of their own was just killed and they want revenge.  Which of these motives can you get behind?

Never mind the fact that Ratcliffe, while admittedly a weak governor, wasn’t even in the colony during the time that the film was set.  He came a few years later.

Look, I’m not going to sit here and say that the white man was perfect in our relations with the Native Americans when we came to this country.  Far from it, as anyone who has studied history certainly knows.  (Although the idea that we would all still be in Europe and the Native Americans would be living here in their idealic world with the exploring period of history is ludicrous.)  But the characters were created as strawmen that could easily be knocked down as examples of the good (Native American) and bad (white man).  It is so painfully obvious it ruins much of the movie.

Am I expecting too much from an animated movie aimed at kids?  Maybe.  Usually, I just sit down, relax, and enjoy.  But since this one took on history and messed with it so much, it really bothers me.  Besides, with the historical background and serious nature of the film, I don’t see it appealing to kids that much.  The animals, while cute and funny, will only carry things so far.  Whether they want to admit it or not, I think this movie was aimed at adults.

So for the hatchet job of history and the blatant political correctness of the movie, I can’t recommend Pocahontas at all.  Good visuals and music only get you so far.  If you do decide to view the film, make sure you think about the messages you are getting.

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