Pocahontas, directed by Mike Gabriel & Eric Goldberg; 1995
It has been 15 years since Disney released its very first animated film surrounded around a central character who wasn't of ambiguous European descent, and technically and musically, it holds up quite well. The animation, bursting with lush pastel blues, pinks, purples and greens looks very different from the previous year's vibrant reds and oranges that dominated much of The Lion King and before that, Aladdin. Nowhere is the film more visually stunning than during the equally beautiful song, "Colors of the Wind," written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, where the images of wolves and moons and bears morph into one another seamlessly, leaves flow on a distinct path, and you can jump from a cliff thousands of feet high head-first without fear of death. And the songs--from "Steady as a Beating Drum" to "Just Around the Riverbend," all make the case for why Pocahontas would have been a much more logical choice for the Broadway stage than the so-so Tarzan.
What doesn't hold up, or rather what probably never made much sense to begin with even 15 years ago, is how even-handedly Disney treats the conflict between the pompous English settlers looking to "kill [them]selves an Injun, or maybe two or three" and the Indians themselves. Clearly, if you're looking for historical accuracy, you should never look to Hollywood, much less a Disney movie. Heck, for years and even now in some cases, you were hard-pressed to find the real truth behind history's greatest moments in your own school textbooks (let us not forget where most of our American schoolbooks have been published: Texas). It's expected that Disney's going to make Pocahontas look like the modern-day equivalent of a Playboy Playmate (big boobs, long luscious locks, a waist the size of the Olsen twins' legs--put together) and John Smith like an Aryan dream (blonde hair, blue eyes, chiseled features). It's also no surprise that the conflict devolves more into a Romeo and Juliet scenario--Daddy doesn't approve of the love of my life; my men think I'm crazy for wanting to be with her--rather than a deep, thought-provoking study on race relations in America's beginnings. Let's face it: how utterly depressing would it be to view this film as a child and watch the Indians die of yellow fever and small pox brought upon by their uninvited European guests? Because that's eventually what really happened.
But I digress...as an entertainment vehicle, it works splendidly. The biggest problem with it is that while the film may start off with rightfully casting the Virginia Company in a bad light as they call the Indians savages and speak flippantly about knocking them off one by one, it soon turns into a share-the-blame game. Look at the song and sequence of "Savages," where both sides prepare for a showdown after Kokoum, the man Pocahontas is supposed to marry, is killed by meek white man Thomas, and John Smith is being prepared for execution. Both sides trade gross generalizations and stereotypes about one another through song, with one Indian wondering "if they even bleed!" But in doing so, the writers ignore the real historical issue: the Indians had every right to protect their land and resort to violence because the English brought violence (and disease) to them. Should Indians have been victimized in this portrayal? Not necessarily. But attempting to lessen the offenses of the Virginia Company, they show the Indians as equally menacing and hateful, and in the end, the white men leave peacefully and even having made friends with their tan counterparts.
Pocahontas is definitely a film worth revisiting, especially if you haven't seen it since you were a kid. But it should be advised that, as with any movie loosely based on historical events, children should read up on the true story of the Indian princess and have the ability to distinguish between family entertainment and fact.