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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Disneyear: Pocahontas (1995)

Seems like Disney was on top of the world in the 90's. We have The Little Mermaid that returned the company to form. Beauty and the Beast: nominated for Best Picture. Aladdin: everybody saw. The Lion King: grossed over $900 million at the box office. So what could possibly happen to Disney at the top of their game? Well... remember when I said in my Lion King review in that the management had pretty much no faith in The Lion King but put all of their attention in another film being made around the same time? Well, The Lion King went on to be adored by film-goers and critics alike as well as being the highest-grossing traditionally-animated film of all time while the other was a pretty big disappointment with both critics and at the box office. That unlucky film was today's focus, Pocahontas. Well, let me rephrase that: it was a modest success at the box-office, but it wasn't the big hit Disney was hoping for and the general public didn't really go nuts for it like they did with the previous films. It now has this bad reputation for starting the downward spiral of Disney animated films. So what the hell happened? I guess we'll find out just around the riverbend today.

In 1607 London, Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson) sets off with his crew to the New World. They anticipate making it rich over there thanks to the claims and stories of Governor Radcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) of the natives hiding gold. Meanwhile in the land that will be eventually called America, a Native American princess named Pocahontas (Irene Bedard) dreads the future marriage of her to Kocoum, her village's most respected warrior, because he's so serious and this conflicts with her free spirit. After speaking to her grandmother willow (I kid you not, a talking tree) with her animal friends Meeko and Flit, she meets John Smith and the two seem to share a bond. One problem: both sides hate each other and want the other gone. After several fights and Smith being held prisoner after the accidental death of Kocoum, Pocahontas manages to stop the conflict with her love of Smith, Radcliffe is arrested after trying to shoot the chief but Smith takes the bullet for him, Smith returns to London for healing, and we end with Pocahontas saying goodbye to her love.

I'm not even going to attempt to talk about the historical presentation because there's no point. Disney actually made most of it up. But I wouldn't mind so much if it was done well and well... what we have here is the classic "who's the real savage?" story about a greedy white man who takes over the land. And for those of you thinking this was one of the first films to try it, it's not. We've seen this before in Dances With Wolves, which does the same story much better as well as countless TV specials. They are right, don;t get me wrong, but couldn't we have a new way of telling this story? Why tell this story if we know already how it's going to end?

Let's get to the characters. We have Pocahontas, a free-spirited young woman as dull as a rock. Sorry guys, but she's not that interesting. I know she does things that other Disney princesses don't do, but her actions are one thing. Her personality is something different. She's not bad, but not engaging enough. The only one almost as boring is John Smith. I swear he has to play Jesus in everything he does... And the bad guy, not that interesting either. Here's a clip not from the movie, but it sums up Radcliffe in just one statement and it's as weak as Disney villain motivations get.

The only couple more boring than a day with the WASP family.

One of the biggest complaints at the time was that the animals didn't talk. Sounds very strange when you read that, doesn't it? When I was watching this, I kind of got into the physical comedy of the animal characters. Then this thought occurred: this is a film about communicating with nature. Why don't the animals talk?!? If there's any film where it actually makes sense for the animals to speak, it's this one! Well, that's fine. Maybe they can communicate with nature in another way, like talking to the trees... hold on: the trees can talk but the animals can't? Wha... sense does that make?!?

But like every Disney movie, there's always some things to appreciate. For example, you have to give Disney credit for trying something different. Pocahontas isn't a fairy tale, so this was new territory for them. The animation and colors are great! Whoever did the art design for this film did a wonderful job with this film. Oh, and the great Glen Keanne animated our heroine and does a pretty decent job with her. Not his best work, but passable. The designs are kind of cool. They're not like the usual human designs with smooth lines, but rather a more angular look to them. But I guess some folks miss that smoother look.  The song, Colors of the Wind is preachy, but still a decent song and I love some of the visuals we get with this scene. Some of the silent humor is cute, but after that, there's not a whole lot to talk about.

So is Pocahontas an awful film? I suppose not. There's not anything damning about it aside from rewriting history, but history's done that countless times. Besides, it's a Disney film. You expect them to take these darker stories and turn them around so that we get a happy ending. So the only real problem with Pocahontas is that it's dull and predictable. The more adult designs of the film are fine if we get an adult story out of it. But we don't. And it did start that downward spiral for Disney. They had a hit every now and then, but nothing ever had ground breaking moments like with the Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. So would Disney get back with their next film? Join me next time.

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