This week’s film, 1995’s Pocahontas, is probably one of the most controversial additions to the Disney animated canon. The first to be based on actual people, the film has received a lot of scorn over the years for its wild historical inaccuracies, particularly in its depiction of the supposed romance between English colonist John Smith and the young Native American girl, Pocahontas. The real Pocahontas was probably only about 12 or 13 when she saved John Smith (apparently there is speculation among some historians as to whether that even happened) and while friendly with the Englishmen, she was not likely to have had any sort of romantic relationship with one at the time. And while filmmakers did consult with some scholars while preparing the film, the movie received harsh criticism from the Native American community for the film’s portrayal of Native Americans and how the settlers treated them. Not exactly an auspicious beginning.
The film depicts the concurrent stories of two very different groups of people: while a ship filled with English settlers makes its way to the American colonies in 1607, a young, free-spirited Native American woman, Pocahontas, rejects the attempts of her father, Chief Powhatan, to wed her to one of the “serious” young warriors of the tribe, Kocoum. When the English arrive, their leader, Governor Ratcliffe, forces his men to begin a futile search for gold and riches while plotting a way to get rid of the native population, whom he believes are hiding a hoard of gold. Captain John Smith, one of the more adventurous settlers, encounters Pocahontas one day in the woods, and eventually the two learn to communicate and fall in love. But tensions between the settlers and Pocahontas’ tribe threaten to derail their budding romance as a series of misunderstandings lead to tragedy and strife.
In an attempt to be somewhat authentic, Disney hired mostly Native American actors to do the voices for Pocahontas and her people while also hiring some well-known (or at least soon to be REALLY well-known) actors for the English settlers. Probably the most famous voice in the cast is Mel Gibson, providing the voice of John Smith. At the time of the movie’s release in 1995, Gibson had already turned in some of the highlights of his career— including the Lethal Weapon and Mad Max series, Maverick (1994), and his notorious turn as Hamlet in the eponymous 1990 film—but what would eventually become his “signature” film was released one month prior to Pocahontas: the self-directed Braveheart (for which Gibson personally won two Academy Awards, for Best Picture and Best Director). Also, in the cast is a fairly young Christian Bale, fresh off the roles of Laurie in Little Women (1994) and Jack Kelly in Newsies (1992), as Thomas. And Disney favorite David Ogden Stiers returns here to play Governor Ratcliffe and his valet Wiggins (who sounds an awful lot like Beauty and the Beast’s Cogsworth, come to think of it).
Oscar winner Linda Hunt, who is currently starring in the television series NCIS: Los Angeles, provides the voice of Grandmother Willow, a spiritual confidant for Pocahontas. Interestingly, the filmmakers first envisioned Pocahontas’ spiritual guide to be a male character named Old Man River. Originally, the part was offered to Gregory Peck, who turned it down saying that Pocahontas needed someone maternal to turn to for advice. Eventually, the writers agreed, and Grandmother Willow was born.
The title character is voiced by Irene Bedard (with the singing voice provided by Broadway performer Judy Kuhn). Bedard has played multiple Native American roles throughout her career, and even returned to the “world” of Pocahontas (as the character’s mother this time) in Terrence Malick’s 2005 version of the story, The New World (incidentally, Bale also appears in this version of the story as the real Pocahontas’ future husband, John Rolfe). American Indian activist Russell Means voices Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas’ father. Means had only begun acting a few years prior to the production of Pocahontas—his most prominent role was as Chingachgook in the 1992 adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.
Pocahontas was actually put into production about the same time as The Lion King (1994) and many of the animators considered it to be the more prestigious of the two films. Pocahontas was even thought to potentially be good enough to score another Best Picture nod for Disney. But audiences were not as receptive to it as they had been to The Lion King and Aladdin (1992), and though the film was an unmitigated success at the box office, it never ascended the heights of some of its early-90s predecessors.
While the movie itself was not a runaway hit, the soundtrack was a smash success. Like other films in the Disney Renaissance era, the “big ballad” of the film was performed twice: in the film version, “Colors of the Wind” is performed by Kuhn in character as Pocahontas, while a radio-friendly pop version by Vanessa Williams plays over the credits. As with previous successes “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “A Whole New World,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” this pop version eventually became a top-five hit on the charts. The music for the film was once again composed by Alan Menken, this time partnering with Stephen Schwartz (best known for the Broadway musicals Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked). Schwartz has since gone on to work on several other film projects including the 1998 Dreamworks animated musical The Prince of Egypt and 2007’s delightful live-action/animated combo Enchanted (which paired him again with Menken). Both men would earn Oscars for the score and for best original song for “Colors of the Wind.”
Overall, while this is not one of my favorite films from the Disney repertoire, it does have a nice message about tolerance, solid vocal performances, and some great music. Plus, there’s no beating the animal sidekicks in this film, whose mischief provides some much-needed comic relief throughout the movie. So check out Pocahontas for yourself if you haven’t seen it lately.