Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Pin


From time to time, I have a couple Disney films on my queue of sorts... The ones I rewatch over and over at a certain time in a year, ones I analyze and pick apart... This timeframe's model happens to be Pocahontas...

Pocahontas, out of Disney Animation's lengthy history and fifty-two animated classics, seems to be one of the more divisive films that the feature animation unit put out. It was controversial in many aspects, and amongst Disney fans, it's either a very flawed film or another phenomenal entry from the so-called Disney Renaissance. Many have picked apart its major problems, and I certain gave it quite the review for my best-to-worst list... So what is it about this film that often lands it in the bottom ring of Disney animation? Why did it deflate Disney's "Renaissance" or Second Golden Age?

I do believe that Pocahontas is the worst film that the animation studio produced during the 1990s, and definitely one of their weaker films as a whole... But it's not a terrible film. It's just a terribly misguided one, and one that sums up the absolute worst of the Renaissance era. Or more appropriately, the Eisner-Katzenberg era of Disney animation, which was flawed to begin with.

The late 1980s and early 1990s are looked back upon with respect and love. Most people will tell you that Disney's all-time best were made during this era: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King... It was a time when it finally became acceptable for adults to go to see animated films in theaters or anywhere else, especially family-friendly ones from the standard bearer of genuine family entertainment. But unfortunately, a lot of ignorance built this praise up. The praise for those films overshadowed the older classics like Pinocchio and Bambi.

Disney went along with it as well. I feel that the success of Beauty and the Beast, from the record-breaking blockbuster-sized box office run to the hugely enthusiastic reviews to the Best Picture Nomination, really got to the heads of the executives. Disney's older films were shunned and Beauty and the Beast got all this love, as if it's this be-all end-all Disney masterpiece that stomps out all the others. The definitive Disney animated film and definitive animated film, period. The film continues to get this kind of prestige.

On the otherwise-excellent "Beyond Beauty" bonus feature on the 2010 Blu-ray of the film, someone (whose name escaped me) mentions that Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney animated film to get adults emotionally invested... Ummmm... Bambi? Snow White's heartbreaking scene where the dwarves assume she's dead? Dumbo?! To say nothing of the other animated films Walt produced?!?

On The Lion King's original DVD, one featurette ends with someone saying that The Lion King was when Disney finally made "entertainment" as opposed to "children's entertainment" for all those decades... Walt Disney never intended his films for young audiences, but rather everyone. Maybe the public finally saw Disney animation as for adults by 1994, but that's because a certain era put a stain on animation that plagues the medium to this day. In fact, the attitude that the general public had towards animation - especially Disney animation - was that it was just kids stuff. The great film classics like Snow White and Pinocchio? Kiddie stuff.

Anyways, see where I'm going with this? That 1991 film's success built this sort of arrogance. Corporate Disney saw Beauty and the Beast as high art, but everything before it? Just kiddie babysitter stuff. Bambi? Yeah, that's a film fit for tykes in a daycare, that's not a masterpiece. When these classics came to home video for the first time, most of the ads advertised them as babysitting tools for parents. And people exclusively complain about what Disney does today and how it would piss Walt off? Beauty and the Beast gets so much love whenever it comes around, as if it's Disney's all-time greatest film. Personally, I think it's 3rd Tier material at best. I know that's probably a controversial opinion, but I think that Beauty and the Beast, while very good, shows why Disney's Renaissance wasn't going to last.

Disney Animation began following a rulebook by this time, and Aladdin and The Lion King basically cut and paste The Little Mermaid and Beast's successful elements with some new things thrown in, but not much differentiates these films. Thankfully, the formula worked on these two films thanks to overall strong storytelling and whatnot... But it was bound to get tiresome. How much more films that followed the same structure could the audience take?

Enter Pocahontas. After Beauty and the Beast got nominated for Best Picture - but ultimately lost - in early 1992, Disney probably felt that Aladdin would make up for that loss and finally get an animated film a Best Picture nomination. Ironically, 6 years earlier, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted nothing to do with animation. That was until a certain someone else had to make an animated film that did well, then Katzenberg and Eisner got into animation, Katzenberg especially. In the process, he learned things he never knew and it thankfully killed some of the ignorance he had towards the medium. He's still ignorant towards it to some extent nowadays, but at least he learned something.

Katzenberg was heavily involved with Aladdin, as he probably wanted this thing to top Beauty and the Beast in every way, shape and form. Aladdin toyed with pop culture references and comedic elements that weren't in the previous Disney films, while also experimenting a bit. I feel it's one of the more experimental and wacky Disney animated features of the era, certainly more exciting in a way than some of the others. At the same time, those contemporary jokes posed a problem - in 10 years they'd be irrelevant. But that didn't matter, the sights were on popularity. The moment.

Aladdin outgrossed Beauty and the Beast by a very wide margin. $217 million was certainly a huge leap ahead of an already big $141 million. Disney was now in blockbuster territory, the film was the highest grossing release of the year. (Yes kids, $200 million was massive back in 1992.) The critical reception? Through the roof! But it got no Best Picture nomination, and I'm willing to bet that this drove Katzenberg and the execs to really amp Pocahontas up as the next big thing. The one that would ultimately take home that golden statue and give them more street cred in the film industry...

Now you may be asking, what about The Lion King? It's well-known amongst Disney fans and historians that Disney didn't think too highly of this film when it entered development - imagine that! The Burbank studio and the execs were hyped about Pocahontas: A film based on a historical legend, rife with potentially adult themes and drama, social commentary and many other things. Disney's executives saw something grand with this film. The Lion King, on the other hand... "Who would want to see that?" Even a lot of the animators at the time preferred to work on Pocahontas.

The Lion King would be the first Disney animated film to be (partially) animated at the Florida unit that the company launched in 1989. But The Lion King started to build up momentum, and would ultimately precede Pocahontas on the release slate. It was building up to be the next big thing, and Katzenberg found himself personally involved in it once again. Perhaps a little too much. Anyways, The Lion King opened in summer 1994 and became Disney's biggest commercial success and so on. $312 million domestic and $768 million worldwide, critical acclaim out the wazoo, record-breaking video sales. It's one of Disney's most popular films... But no Best Picture nomination. By this time, and I'm not sure if the suits realized this or not, the Academy probably wasn't planning to ever pull a Beauty and the Beast ever again. Apparently the nomination really ticked a lot of people off... Because you know, animation is not equal to live action, right? Right?

Katzenberg left Disney in September 1994, when Pocahontas was pretty much in the can. Early footage was unveiled to the public on the hot-selling home video premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with a full trailer following in November when The Lion King landed itself back into theaters all around the nation. The full trailer, like The Lion King's full "Circle of Life" sequence trailer, used the entire "Colors of the Wind" sequence. This would later be included on the previews on the VHS of The Lion King, to further whip up anticipation.

Pocahontas would be Katzenberg's last "attempt" to make a film that would be the next Beauty and the Beast in terms of popularity... And boy does it feel like it...


Where to begin with Pocahontas?

Pocahontas uses a legend that quite frankly shouldn't have been used for Disney's 90s template. What was that template you may ask?

  • The soundtrack has to be composed of Broadway-esque "burst out into song" songs. There had to be the love ballad, the silly fun showstopper song, the villain/dark song, the "I Want" song and the introduction song. All of them have to be Billboard-friendly.
  • The plot needs to have a romance.
  • The story needs to be your typical good-vs.-evil deal.
  • There has to be a cute sidekick or two to lighten the load for kiddies (because Disney Animation is for kids first and foremost, ya know?) and to sell lots and lots and lots of toys.

This formula wasn't entirely suitable for stories like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but those were fairy tales. The artists had every right to take liberties with them, as long as they didn't insult the original or the audience. The Little Mermaid, regardless of whether it has the original tale's ending or not, is not insulting to your intelligence... Unless you're against Disneyification to begin with. Beauty and the Beast? Same thing. The film functions as a good adaptation, because Disneyification isn't the devil. Some may argue that some Disneyified tales are actually better than the originals. All subjective, of course.

The legend of Pocahontas on the other hand, well... It's not suited for this formula. This is history that they're tackling here, not a fairy tale or a fictional story. It was already a flawed film from the start: A Disney musical about Pocahontas and a piece of American history told through song, cute critters and formulaic G-rated elements.

The first problem that truly effects Pocahontas is the villain. The English settlers are lead by such an obvious villain. Already, any potential drama concerning the conflict between the Native Americans and the Europeans that would've made this film a truly adult Disney film is thrown out the window. The villain, Governer Ratcliffe, is a gold-digger. All he wants is riches, but why? He has no connection with the titular heroine or anyone else, really. He's just a powerful guy who just wants the gold, but for what reason? During the "Mine, Mine, Mine" song, he vaguely explains his motivations but he's about as cardboard as you could get. Greedy want-it-all villains aren't interesting, there needs to be more to them! When the settlers fail to find gold, he exclaims that the Natives are hiding the gold! Such an idiot, and definitely one of Disney's weakest villains. It all the more makes the "Savages" sequence goofier than it should be.


This is such a childish and cowardly way to avoid better ideas, ones that would've made this film sit alongside Walt Disney's best - films that are for adults as much as they are for kids and everyone else. Why not just focus on both sides and their prejudices towards one another? We see that the Natives and the Europeans mean well, but don't understand each other, are afraid, cautious and prejudiced. But instead, we get the greedy gold-digger driving much of the conflict by having the British destroy the land and even take a few casualties. Politically correct much?

Yes, this Disney film succumbs to political correctness. A first, and one that undermines Disney animation as a whole. The earlier films never did this, but it seems like the executives didn't care. They thought that slightly touching upon the darker side of American history for a Disney animated film was a surefire way to get people to take the film and Disney animation seriously, and of course... To get that damn statue! Again, that prestige. It's forced and it feels like it was thrown together just to be a success, rather than be a genuinely good film.

Good intentions or not, Pocahontas is already botched by this. "Colors of the Wind" is also a fine example, it's just preachy. "I'm not a savage, you're ignorant" in song form, that's basically it! There's a reason a lot of people have such a hatred for James Cameron's Avatar, it's because it repeats the same mistake that this film makes and much worse. The diabolical villains are humans, humans that just want to do whatever they can to get the riches, and that the Na'vi wouldn't ever do this. At least Pocahontas, if you remove Ratcliffe for a second, has both sides being prejudiced and the ending does ram that idea home in a preachy manner... But with the villain, it just weakens all of that. Why have a villain when you could just let the prejudice from both sides be the main conflict?

The other problem with "Colors of the Wind" is just that it feels like it's just teaching children about diversity, and "Savages" teaches them about racism. Why does this have to be some sort of history lesson? Or better yet, why is the film pandering to children? Another no-no in Disney animation, contrary to popular belief. The lyrics are just so blunt. It makes the picture feel like a children's film about American history more than anything. This should've been an epic Disney film for the whole family, but again, that's all thanks to the suits' cluelessness. They just seemed to have no clue, what made Walt's films and the last three films work? Clearly they just weren't getting it.

So the good-vs.-evil template doesn't work for this story. Does the love story fare better? A bit...

Pocahontas and John Smith's relationship is mostly undercooked, as it could've been a great dramatic center that ultimately fired the conflicts up even more, more so than some stock villain. The film at least tries to succeed, but the problem is that the characters are overall not that great. Again, that's a byproduct of the good-vs.-evil story which rushes things and doesn't give us good story arcs for Pocahontas, John Smith or anyone else. Even worse, executives excised Pocahontas and John Smith's pivotal love ballad "If I Never Knew You", and much has been written about that. Let's just say that move was rock-bottom for Disney, cutting an important song out of the film because kids got bored during a test screening. I shudder at the thought of Katzenberg getting his way roughly 6 years earlier with "Part Of Your World".

That leads me to discuss the next big problem. Disney's suits felt the way most people felt about Disney animation in the 1970s and 1980s: It's for kids first and foremost...

In this film, we get three cutesy critters that interrupt the film from time to time. Thankfully they don't speak, but what are they doing in this film? All they are there for is to make kids laugh, no different from Flounder or LeFou or the Gargoyles. They add very little to the story, but it could've been worse. Percy, Ratcliffe's snobbish pug, was originally going to speak and at times he'd interact with a John Candy-voiced turkey named Redfeather...




As much as I love John Candy as Wilbur in The Rescuers Down Under, and as funny as I think he was throughout his career... I'm satisfied that this turkey got cut. Candy is a great, funny talent, but this character would've been very much out of place. So out was the fowl, in came cuddly raccoon Meeko and mischievous hummingbird Flit. Their slapstick goes against the serious themes of the film (and at times, the film does get a bit violent and dramatic), but the suits pushed for this because it apparently worked in the last couple of films. You can't try to aim for adults with drama and adult-level themes while trying to get the kids interested with cute comic relief like this... It doesn't work and it didn't work in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan and Tarzan either.


But then we get to the more fantastical side of the film, which is either a good thing or a bad thing. It is a Disney film after all, so why not try to get a more magical element going? I feel that the animators were having a lot of fun with this angle of the film, as Mike Giaimo's art direction more than accentuates it. Nature plays a considerable role in the story, especially with talking tree Grandmother Willow. Pocahontas communicates with the animals, but you've got other things like the wind and her dream. The more spiritual stuff is not really explored here, but perhaps this is because the suits and producers were too afraid to make the film less serious than it already seemed. There's this stoic tone to it that kind of makes the film a bit dull, and with such art direction and magical aspects, it should not be dull. Even the film's original VHS release has a rather uncharacteristic cover, as Pocahontas doesn't have a big appealing smile on her face. Unusual for a Disney video cover...

Yes, at times, Pocahontas tries to be super-serious, and not in a good way. It's the kind of seriousness that feels forced, much like an action film trying to emulate a Christopher Nolan film by being unnecessarily dour, brooding and desaturated. The character designs of the Natives are almost too realistic and as a result, they're almost stiff. The English settlers are a little more caricatured in both their looks, their actions and their movements (Wiggins immediately comes to mind). The animals? Very cartoony and fluid. It's a very odd, uneven blend of character design styles. John Candy's turkey would've made things even more imbalanced.

The biggest problem with this film is that it has no idea what it wants to be. The executives were chasing the Oscar and that prestigious status, but at the same time they wanted to make something accessible for kids and something that would sell loads and loads of merchandise. That's really not a good mix, and it's what further hurts this already problematic Disney film.

So how is it not terrible?

Where the suits fail, the animators and creative team succeed completely. Michael Giaimo's art direction (he's also handling Frozen's art direction) bursts with color and pops...

American's wildernesses are stunning to look at, and the rather different and minimalist style they go for here really works. Back to the color though... It's very saturated and yet it heightens the more fantastical side of the film, even though that side is not fully explored. Despite the simplistic lyrics for "Colors of the Wind", the melody is great and the visuals are just so beautiful to look at. In fact, the songs all sound fine despite the lyrics of many of them. "Steady as the Beating Drum" is probably the best song in the film, as it's one of those Disney songs that immediately plunges you into the film's atmosphere and it really works. "Listen To Your Heart" is also beautiful, but it's a two-parter than isn't something bigger.

"Virginia Company" isn't bad either, having a more classic Disney feel to it in its singing and tone. It serves as a fine introduction song, one that starts the picture off with a striking drumroll. "Just Around the River Bend"? Yeah it's an "I Want" song, but it's pretty-sounding and the scene is nice, but that's about it. "Savages"? It's basically a preachy version of "The Mob Song", with such blunt lyrics (Stephen Schwartz wrote this?!) and obvious ideas. "If I Never Knew You" should've never been cut of course, it's melancholy in tone and the film totally needed it. It's not like the other love ballads where they advance the characters' relationship, this one actually suits the story quite well and only heightens the drama. Damn you Disney suits...


Then there's showstopper "Mine, Mine, Mine", a bombastic song set to a rather over-the-top scene. Singing about digging gold and being powerful, the title alone indicates how shallow the villain is... But there's something about it that I really enjoy, more so than the other songs in this film. Menken's lyrics are well constructed, but this song almost borders on a parody. It's like someone put together a Disney parody and said, "Hey, what if Disney made a musical about American history? It'll have this song about an evil European gold-digger singing about all the power they'll have. Of course, gotta have a villain song like that!" But the scene is enjoyable and a literal blast, despite the lyrics and parody-esque tone to it.

There's nothing wrong with making a musical based on this legend, but with a stronger story, a song like "Mine, Mine, Mine" would've been different and not anything remotely close to seeming like Disney mocking their own shortcomings of the era. And we wouldn't haven gotten something so painfully simplistic as "Savages", where the film literally has to spell everything out for the kids in the audience. Again, why should a Disney film have to do that?

Anyways, the film is overall handsome-looking and great-sounding. The score is quite fine, too. The voice actors give it their all as well, and there's a few fun characters in the mix as well such as Ratcliffe's overly optimistic servant Wiggins. Meeko, Flit and Percy aren't annoying, they're just out of place in a film like this. They're actually similar to Pascal and Maximus from Tangled, but those two silent comic relief animals work because they are more part of the story and they fit in with the film's tone. Maybe these three critters would've been better off in something like that 2010 film.

In the end, Pocahontas is just a big mess. It's not horrible or really that insulting, it's just a film that doesn't have any clue what it wants to do. It perfectly represents the struggle between the creatives and the executives, and it perfectly represents how clueless the suits were at the time. It's a film that tries way too hard to be adult, but yet it comes off as a more childish effort in Disney's canon. The pandering doesn't help, either. There are sheds of beauty and greatness littered amidst the ho-hum story, the tonal issues and the overall self-important coating.

Audiences seemed to think so, or were at least disappointed one way or another. Pocahontas was no doubt a box office success, opening with a big $29 million and grossing $141 million at the domestic box office. It was met with pre-release controversy that may have affected the film's opening weekend chances, but word of mouth was not as impressive as The Lion King's. It was letdown for many, and critics either thought it was lacking or an absolute insult to their intelligence. After the film's release, more controversy ensued whether it was from Native American groups or Christian groups, the latter were always on Disney's tail at the time.

But simply put, coming off of something like The Lion King, this mess would be a letdown for many. It just felt so phoned in and thrown together, and its ambitions were so obvious in a not-so-good way. It was, reputation-wise, a bit of a disaster for the company and one that did great damage to the animation unit. Future films were greeted with indifference, as nothing from the company has reached the high attendance of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Disney was on top of the world in the early to mid 1990s, but ticking many off and creating such controversy hurt the company's reputation and Disney animation's reputation.

It didn't help that later that year, Pixar's Toy Story come on like a tidal wave. It was whip-smart, fresh, much more adult (by not trying to be something it wasn't, just naturally doing what it set out to do), great for all ages, groundbreaking and something new. Toy Story was nothing like the Disney films released at the time, and John Lasseter has stressed that many times. Sadly, Disney didn't take any cues from that. They stuck with the formula until it wore thin, only to go about new things the wrong way. It took the same man who had the ambitions to go about making films like Toy Story to cure Disney animation's problems over a decade after Pocahontas came out: The suits' powers.

Pocahontas was the bullet that wounded Walt Disney Feature Animation, fired carelessly by executives who had no idea what to do with the goldmine they came across. Disney's massive and legendary animation unit was beginning to die a slow death despite some successes, the executives then beat them to the ground as the millennium rolled in. After the merger, Disney animation is soundly getting out of the coma the suits under Michael Eisner put them in with films like The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. They're walking again, and now it's time to run.

Time has seemed to heal the wounds though, as Pocahontas' annoyances are a little more tolerable now. Today, it's just a bland film whose ambitions just couldn't pan out since there were so many to begin with, and the fact that all of them were just misguided. The response towards it doesn't seem as fiery, and it seems to gain fans while others have a nostalgic love for it. Despite my problems with it, I find it entertaining and enjoyable enough. Sometimes a lesser film can be fascinating to watch because of its shortcomings, I'm the same way with music. Why is that Beatles song the worst? Why is this album the worst Led Zeppelin ever did? I love the look of it for the most part, and I'm excited to see what the art director brings to the table for Frozen. The songs, despite the lyrics on many of them, sound nice and are catchy. The film has its beautiful moments, ones that suggest how much better this film could've been.

As such, Pocahontas is lower tier Disney work in my book. Despite some positive elements, Pocahontas is limited by too many clashing visions and ideas. It has a pretentious sheen and a lack of vision, but does it deserve to be treated horribly? No. It's more of time capsule and a cautionary tale, but within that hard shell is some great animation and some creative sparkle.

"Pocahontas" sits in the fourth tier on my work-in-progress best-to-worst Disney Animated Classics list. What are your thoughts on this Disney animated film? Sound off!

3 comments:

  1. Excellent. I never really cared to explore why Pocahontas isn't the best it could be, but you nailed it. I do love her though. I would just disagree about Colors of the Wind being too preachy. It might have been pandering to the kids, but I think it's actually a wonderful song that's meant to teach everyone not to judge. And then, context. Considering how Natives are still treated in this country, how the harmful stereotype of savages has persisted, I think it's a bright spot in the film.

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  2. I really disagree. I think that this is one of those films that you either feel, or you don't feel. Some people don't really reach the emotional core of this movie. That's okay, I don't totally get some Disney movies like other people do also. But, for me, the combination of breathtaking animation with brilliant colors and design, great music, and a more serious tone is stellar. In a technical sense, this might not be a masterpiece. However, the opening scenes of this movie take my breath away and the end makes me cry. Doesn't that count for something?

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  3. Of course it counts for something. That's the art of it all, really. Who enjoys it and who doesn't.

    I enjoy "Pocahontas" and I absolutely love the overall look of it, the art direction... and some of the songs do have a nice sound to them. I'm just looking it at as a film while still pointing out what I personally liked, even if the things I like aren't necessarily good. And I feel it too, I just don't necessarily think what I'm seeing happens to work.

    If "Pocahontas" moves you to tears/excites you, that's great! Sometimes the films that may not be Disney's greatest still appeal. I personally feel that "The Jungle Book" is technically a bit of a mess, but I love the film very much and a lot of people - it's one of Disney's Platinum/Diamond titles, meaning it's one of their bestsellers of all time. It means a lot to others too, and I suspect that "Pocahontas" is the same. I know a lot of people who love it very much.

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