Wednesday, February 17, 2010

#33: Pocahontas (1995)

Now at this point Disney was on FI-YAH, and they were planning to ride this success train for as long as they could. "Pocahontas" was going to be the company's next huge huge huge success, thinking it might nab a Best Picture nomination like "Beauty and the Beast" had. As strange as this may sound now, most animators were more eager to work on "Pocahontas" than "Lion King," thinking it would be the more successful of the two. While the film was by no means a failure, it didn't come close to "King"s gross, which to be fair would be quite a feat for any movie. Disney's Renaissance formula was beginning to wear, and with "Toy Story" releasing that fall, and people's minds would be blown over not only the groundbreaking CG visuals, but the strong and effective storytelling. Many view the underwhelming response to the film as the beginning of the decay of Disney, but is that really fair? Well...
A bunch of English sailors are off to the New World, led by the glory-hungry Governor Radcliffe, with the powerhouse adonis John Smith as the most revered of the men. Meanwhile across the sea, Chief Powhatan has arranged a marriage for his daughter Pocahontas, but she feels like she is destined for something more. Once the English arrive, Radcliffe demands they start digging for gold and to shoot any savage on sight. More interested in exploring this New World, John Smith runs off and eventually encounters Pocahontas. Smith informs their plans to "civilize" their people, while Pocahontas resists, teaching him the merits of living with the Earth. From that point it's basically a reformatted 'Romeo & Juliet' where these two lovers need to stop their respective clans from fighting.
Disney wasn't kidding in gearing this one up as their new benchmark picture; everything about this movie just feels like the ones before it, but times ten, in several respects. The music is more bombastic, the visuals (attempting to be) more dynamic, and the overall tone trying to more serious, which is of course counter-balanced by cute animal sidekicks. Now let's first address a bit of a story problem here: the film ends with the English and Indians vowing not to fight... but, I think we all know that didn't last too long. It's just really hard to disassociate one's self from their entire race and history to view this non-subjectively. When your villain is spouting loudmouth nonsense about killing all the Indians and claiming the land for himself, it's kind of hard to hate him when you know that it was that kind of thinking that is responsible for me living here and writing this in the first place, let alone for allowing Disney to make a movie about it. For a movie trying to strike a more serious tone, there's a lot about it that's pretty silly, or just downright incorrect (where the hell in coastal Virginia are all these towering mountaintops that Pocahontas stands on?) And when the plot deems that they must cross the language barrier somehow to make dialogue between she and Smith possible, we get magic wind that allows them to "listen with their heart to understand." I mean, I know they had to explain it, but... man.
Speaking of wind, Pocahontas always seems to be standing in the middle of a wind tunnel. Does she channel this wind and colorful leaves? Allegedly it's the spirit of her dead mother, but it just seems like an excuse to amp up her supposed hotness. To springboard to visuals, the character designs here are kind of... off. Pocahontas and her friend are very strangely designed, with big heavily inked eyes and a not-so-discernible nose. With the friend in particular, at times it seems like her face is shifting around as she's talking, like nothing's in place. As for the English, John Smith is way too realistically rendered, with so many lines used to distinguish his rugged face, and his piercing blue eyes are really distracting (not in that way). Scenes with him and Pocahontas with focus on their faces is like watching two different animation styles that are almost sorta kinda human-like. And, of course, both leads are exceptionally boring, even more so than the last couple films. Acknowledging this, we get an overload of "humorous" sidekicks: Pocahontas has a raccoon and hummingbird, and Radcliffe has a pug dog and an assistant that's more effeminate than he is (a daunting task). All of their scenes feel oh-so superfluous, and although I had no real interest in the actual story, I had even less interest in their antics.
However the sidekicks do provide some bearing on the story: the dog and the raccoon's constant fighting is a delightful little microcosm of the English-Indian relationship, which of course is blatantly highlighted through dialogue. And oh my goodness is this the most moral-heavy Disney film of all. The messages of anti-racism, pro-green and human compassion are so unsubtle they might as well have stopped the movie altogether to tell them. And, I once again must stress, if we didn't kill the Indians and take their land, we probably wouldn't have settled here as vastly as we did, there would be no Disney company, and there would be no "Pocahontas." This point is just impossible to get past; couldn't Disney have picked ANY other story to do than this one with such a loaded context? Even if the movie was good it would be hard to look past.

Verdict? I feel like I'm leaving some things out, but you get the picture. I did enjoy some of the songs (the well-known ones at least), and the acting wasn't bad. ...that's about as much good I can say. You can tell this movie is trying so hard to be grand and epic, but it couldn't have fallen flatter. A laughable love story, a story riddled with historical aggravation, awkward designs, and simplistic passes at humor; as I said, this is your Disney Renaissance film inflated to grandiose proportions, which Disney thought would make it better I guess, but it only serves to make more obvious its holes and flaws. A spectacular mess, "Pocahontas" was the first sign to Disney that they could only ride this formula train for so long.

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