The story of Pocahontas and the first (permanent) English settlement in Jamestown has been oft-told, but hardly accurately told on screen. The two most famous film versions of the story came ten years apart, and only in recent times. 2005's The New World was filmed and released close to the 400th anniversary of the settlement (2007), but director Terrence Malick was far more interested in examining the environmental impact of European colonialism on the American landscape than he was in really telling the Jamestown story (this isn't a problem, because the film is gorgeous). Then there's this week's "Hit Me…" selection, the 1995 animated Disney musical Pocahontas. This film goes for romantic sweep as Pocahontas (voice of Irene Bedard / singing voice of Judy Kuhn), the daughter of a Powhatan chief (voice of Russell Means), falls in love with handsome John Smith (voice of Mel Gibson), an Englishman who's arrived with an expedition set on "glory, God, and gold" (though not necessarily in that order). From the fact that the latter phrase was actually the justification the Spanish used for exploration to the fact that Pocahontas never married Smith, it's safe to say that Pocahontas plays very fast and loose with history.
But historical accuracy isn't the point, at least the way that directors Eric Goldberg and Mike Gabriel frame the film. Instead, the film has broader ambitions befitting Disney's reference to it as a "prestige" project: a rip-snorting adventure for the kids, a rectification of Hollywood's previous portrayals of Native Americans for the adults, and a sweeping romantic epic for everyone.
More after the jump.
And as an adventure, the film works just fine. It draws its lines very clearly: Pocahontas and her tribe are only looking out for their best interests, but are open to learning to trust the new settlers. Smith, through his meeting with Pocahontas, learns that they're not so different, and is willing to cooperate. It's the gold-hungry Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stires) who's the villain, convincing the other settlers that the Native Americans are "savages" and bloodthirsty. The film is littered with little visual parallels, but one of the best comes early in the film, when Ratcliffe boards the vessel in the background…while an actual rat scurries up a rope in tandem in the foreground:
While the adventure works just fine, the film also opens up an interesting discussion on the portrayal of Native Americans and European colonialism in Hollywood. On the one hand, the film flips the general convention by having the audience identify with Pocahontas and her tribe rather than the English settlers. The Native Americans are not portrayed as uncivilized nor simple-minded, but rather as a people who have developed a society that is simply different from that of London. The film takes care to show these characters as people, not just "threats" to the settlers that most audiences would be more likely to identify with by virtue of ancestry. In a song late in the film, as the two groups prepare to go to war with each other, each side sings the same chorus, calling the other side "savages." It's an unexpected and clever twist to a common racial trope.
That being said, it is still a little problematic. Pocahontas and her tribe are still portrayed as mystics capable of conjuring the supernatural, as evidenced in the presence of Grandmother Willow (voiced by Linda Hunt) and various references to visions and dreams. A part of this can be attributed to the fact that these sorts of elements are present in just about every animated Disney film, but given the subject material it does ring a little dubious. And of course, the ending is a little too pat for a relationship between Native Americans and European settlers that would prove disastrous to the former, but that's to be expected of a family-friendly animated film. Though the following shot, with the musket in the foreground, could be read as foreshadowing the centuries of violence that would follow this encounter:
What's most remarkable about Pocahontas, though, is the look of the film. Unlike the studio's other contemporary films, Pocahontas has a "flat" visual style that's more reminiscent of earlier films such as Sleeping Beauty. The characters are more angular and the backgrounds more painterly, with flourishes of color that give each frame an ethereal look:
The film that immediately comes to mind, oddly enough, is Fantasia, Disney's 1940 omnibus film that featured segments based on pieces of classical music. In both films, any given frame could function as a painting, making them beautiful in a way that very few recent Disney films can claim to be. Given the way both films use easy blends of colors and textures, at times it feels as if Pocahontas is a feature-length version of a lost Fantasia sequence. The colors in Pocahontas are particularly stunning, from the watercolor quality of the "Colors of the Wind" sequence to the bold oranges and blues in the lead-up to the battle sequence:
The lowermost-above shot is a particularly stunning combination of all three points. The march to battle is exciting, leading up to the climatic showdown between the settlers and the Native Americans. The scene is framed like a stage, with the Native Americans crossing the frame in a straight line (future-echoes of the Trail of Tears?) while the specter of European colonization looms large over them. And the bold use of orange makes the shot visually distinctive, and it works just as well as a stand-alone image as it does a part of the film. It's a perfect summation of everything that Pocahontas seeks to accomplish, and condenses centuries of history into a single image.
I couldn't resist including one of my favorite moments in the film. Coming ashore for the first time, Smith begins scaling a ledge in order to "get a better look." Little does he know that Pocahontas is hiding in the bushes behind him:
Oh yeah, she's definitely getting a better look.