Written by: Carl Binder, Susannah Grant & Philip LaZebnik
And NOW WE COME… to the END of the Renaissance.
The most hilarious thing about this is that Disney thought this was going to be their MAGNUM OPUS. Like, after Beauty and the Beast got some Oscar Cred, they were like “THIS TIME FOR SURE!” and put everything into pushing this as some kind of dramatic spectacle. The Lion King was thought of around the offices as a lesser work with THIS ONE getting the big push from behind the scenes. So when Lion King made all of the monies, and Pocahontas turned into a punchline that is universally considered to be the “End of the Renaissance”, the irony was just amazing. I mean, you can’t write stuff like that.
Seriously, this movie has gone on to become Disney’s most infamous film EVER. While there are bigger flops (in fact, this one actually turned a profit and made money- way more than company-ruining movies like The Black Cauldron did), nothing did more damage to the Disney BRAND than this one. And if there’s one thing worse than losing money… it’s losing credibility.
Before Pocahontas came out, Disney was on a hot streak the likes of which no studio has ever seen, pumping out hit after hit. It seemed Disney could do no wrong… and so ONE BAD MOVIE was all it would take to break the illusion. There is absolutely nothing more disastrous than this one- you need 2-3 good movies to make up for one dumpster fire, and this one made nearly the entire world sit up at once and go “WELP- Renaissance is over. I guess we’re back to crappy movies again”. It was so bad that it actually made the NEXT bunch of movies seem worse, simply by being on “the tail end of the Renaissance”.
I actually remember seeing it in theaters and thinking it bit. I was looking at just how generic and by-the-books everything was, and being annoyed- the Animal Sidekicks were more cloying than ever. And even worse- the friggin’ protagonists were boring! This movie was totally a disappointment given what had come out before- going from Beauty and the Beast and the Lion King to this atrocity? Part of the issue is that it’s a bit of historical fiction, meaning that people are going to read into the “Disneyfication” of things even more than they usually would, as if Disney didn’t do that with EVERY STORY EVER already.
Also funny is… most Native Americans HATE this movie. They think it embodies all of the worst traits of “Injun Cinema” (the documentary Reel Injun shows a lot of positive and negative portrayals throughout history, and pretty much shits all over Pocahontas), with the Brave White Explorer being entranced by the otherworldly exotic beauty of the Magical Indian Princess. Never mind the fact that the myth of Pocahontas is basically just Self-Insert FanFic by John Smith (a short, portly guy), who invented a story where he used the love of a twelve-year old Indian girl to stop a potential war between their tribes.
Basically, Natives even acknowledge that this story is bunk, but the myth kind of swirled up around it because it sounded so rad (with the girl’s age usually being whitewashed). So the very people the film was supposed to be all “Yay, you guys!” about were not only hateful of it, but were never going to like it in the first place.
It’s easy to see where the hate for this movie comes from, though- everything about it is weak aside from the animation (which is uber-pretty, but often merely serviceable and fails to REALLY show off the way other films have).
The suckiness is as follows:
* The main characters are very dull- Pocahontas, John Smith & Ratcliffe are horribly unmemorable.
* Most of the characters are merely tangential, and offer nothing to the plot (Pocahontas’ friend, Ratcliffe’s assistant, those two guys at the camp who are always talking). Even Kocoum, actually an important character, has about as many lines as Prince Charming in Cinderella.
* They settled so deeply into the generic “Formula” with the characters that the movie felt cookie-cutter and dull. Especially bad are the little jerk Meeko and the pointless hummingbird- this was when people had finally gotten tired of the generic “Mascot Animal” and “Animal Sidekick” characters. Like… why does Pocahontas have a Hummingbird Sidekick?
And then you have a Princess that “Wants Something More” than her life- something Disney had done about THREE TIMES immediately preceding this (Ariel, Belle, Jasmine). It got so obvious that Animaniacs wrote a song about how cookie-cutter the Princesses were getting: Gaze upon the Warners’ resplendence here. They even use Just Around The Riverbend as the basis for the number.
* The whole story is just so… un-epic. It’s basically one tribe of Indians versus a boatfull of failures and bums. The story’s “climax” is a chick jumping in front of an club meant for the guy she just fell in love with last week. Compare this to nearly every other Disney movie and it just falls flat. There’s simply no major story to it- nothing to really GRAB you.
* Jim Cummings plays both male Indian roles in Savages, despite his voice sounding nothing like Chief Powhatan’s, and his voice not really changing between roles. Less obvious than when he did Scar’s lines in Be Prepared.
* The whole “Fall in love with the chief’s daughter and fight her betrothed” thing is a little old. People accuse James Cameron’s Avatar of ripping this off, but honestly, that story’s a bajillion years old and probably crosses every culture’s radar at least once in history. Cameron was just using the same old tropes everyone else does .
* Ratcliffe was one terrible-ass villain. He has the effeminate mannerisms of Scar & Jafar (or y’know, the female villains), but lacks the sheer evil or great lines of any of them. He’s just a big fat ponce of a man who doesn’t really accomplish anything. He’s simply greedy, then decides to wipe out the Indians because… because.
His Mine Mine Mine song is okay, but makes him seem juvenile and wimpy instead of something like Be Prepared or Poor Unfortunate Souls, which are the solos of great killers and schemers. This is arguably the movie’s greatest flaw- Disney stuff is often MADE by an epic villain, and this guy seems to be just thrown together from leftover scraps of other villains.
* The songs aren’t really up to Disney’s Renaissance standards. With Howard Ashman dead, and no Celebrity Musician this time around, there was no big-time showstopper that would get endlessly repeated for all time. Some of the songs are catchy, and none are really BAD, but Just Around The Riverbend and Colors of the Wind are never gonna hold a candle to Be Our Guest and Part Of Your World, y’know?
I mean, the movie isn’t a giant turd or anything- Pocahontas and her Fluorescent-Coloured Leaf-Field (did she beat up Wood Man and gain his Robot Weapon or something?) are well-animated, despite her facial features being a bit screwy, making her look odd sometimes (her mouth is too small for her face, especially when combined with her Playmate Lips). Some of the songs are pretty good (Stephen Schwartz of Wicked fame was involved here as well), particularly Colors Of The Wind and Mine Mine Mine, but in general, nothing ever really hits big, and it’s a bunch of “meh” stuff throughout. On a scale of 1-10, the movie’s a 5.5 or something. Not a complete waste of time, but easily the worst of the 1990s for Disney.
Though I chuckled when almost immediately, Pocahontas and her best friend get into a water-spitting girlish tickle-fight underneath an upturned boat. Well now you’re just catering to the Slash Shippers.
Reception & Cultural Impact:
Pocahontas made money, for certain. But OH MY GOD it was disastrous to Disney’s brand name in a way that I don’t think any other movie has ever been. I mean, they’ve laid bigger turds. Movies whose failure has nearly killed the studio, too. But none of those failures ever got called out on Frasier for being historically inaccurate and bad. Nothing hurt the BRAND like this very big, public turd. It’s not for nothing that this movie stained the “Renaissance” and made people discount later films, too. Basically… this movie is Disney’s 32X.
Let me explain- Sega during the ’90s was on a HUGE hot streak. They were kicking Nintendo’s ass in a way that nobody thought possible. But when their much-hyped Sega Saturn was a while in coming out, they decided to create this “stop-gap” between the 16-bit Genesis and the 32-bit Saturn. The “32X” was an add-on to the Genesis that let you play some more graphically-intensive games. Except it licked ass, everyone hated it, and it failed. It didn’t KILL Sega or anything, but… it hurt their image. Their BRAND suffered. Because after a couple years of non-stop hits, suddenly they laid a giant egg and everyone knew they weren’t untouchable. This is utterly disastrous when your game is that you’re awesome, cool, and better than the other guy.
And this is what Pocahontas did to Disney. After a five year period in which we saw The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King… in comes this piece of crap film and everyone goes “AHHHHHHH… well, I guess it couldn’t last”. In this sense, the movie did a hell of a lot of damage to the Disney Legacy- though it did well in theatres, its creative and public failure hurt the name value of “Disney”, which is something you can’t really put a dollar sign on. That it was so soon after Howard Ashman’s death didn’t help- it was the sign that Disney was faltering, and WAS made up of humans after all.
So you still see SOME stuff from the movie. Pocahontas is a Meet & Greet Character at Disney Parks, usually portrayed by anyone who looks “non-white” ethnically (a lotta Asian & Latina Pocahontases…). Princess performers actually say that she gets hit on by male guests the most, as she bares the most skin out of the girls. But otherwise, you don’t really see much of this movie.
Pocahontas 2 was a straight-to-video release, and had a SUPER-rare thing… a Princess BREAK-UP, as Pocahontas and John Smith realize they’ve grown apart, and she falls in love with the more human and less alpha John Rolfe.
I found it actually a bit better than the original movie (Rolfe being shocked and embarrassed by her “underwear”, which covers more skin than her traditional outfit, is funny), but it’s still pretty lame.
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS:
POCAHONTAS (Matoaka- Pocahontas means “Little Mischief” and is a nickname)
Pocahontas has the dubious distinction of being the least-popular and least-commonly-seen Official Disney Princess (a group that only contains the major stars of major films, ie. non-Black Cauldron ones)- this is in part due to the weaknesses of the film, the blandness of her character (the fourth straight “I want SOMETHING MOORRRRRRRRRRE!” Princess), and the fact that she’s probably the hardest Princess to cast in the Parks for Live Action stuff. I mean, she’s the toughest of the lot physically, and she’s EASILY the most voluptuous and Comic Book-esque of the lot with her figure… which makes her lack of popularity all the more curious.
The fact that she’s one of the least-common races in the Americas (ironic, given they got here first) probably doesn’t help her either, as there’s not some giant movement to introduce more Natives into everything the way there is with Blacks and Latinos. Heck, they even get left out of media SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED to have a member of every race in the group. It also probably doesn’t help that she’s the least-glamorous of the Princesses, wearing bucksin stuff almost all the time (save a mostly-forgotten sequel), so playing “Dress Up” for Princess-obsessed little girls probably isn’t as fun with her.
Interestingly, she’s the only Princess NOT to hook up with a Prince at the end (also hurting her “Vicarious Fantasy” image), and even DROPS John Smith in Pocahontas II for John Rolfe, her legit husband in real life. The real Pocahontas- which is a nickname, by the way- was a little girl who may have slept with Smith, but then hooked up with Rolfe in England, having his child and dying there quite young two years later.
About the Performer: Irene Bedard has multiple tribes and ethnic groups in her lineage, and Pocahontas is easily her biggest role. She pretty much plays to her ethnicity in various works, which kind of limits her career progression. Her personal history is a pretty rough, as her husband is said to have kept her practically enslaved to his will, being abused frequently and had her finances controlled by him.
The singing voice, Judy Kuhn, is actually a much bigger name, being a Broadway star from before Pocahontas came out. She hit big in Les Miserables as Cosette, getting a Tony Award nomination- if you have an American album from 1987-1995, it was probably her you heard. She’s been in a TON of flops, as she’s both highly-sought-after and very prolific, and most Broadway shows don’t turn a profit at all. Her Wikipedia bio reads like “a list of failed musicals” after a point, but the handful of solid hits is still in there.
Meeko was the Toyetic (“Buy stuffed dolls of THIS!”) character in Pocahontas, and is one of the more bald-faced versions of this in Disney’s features. I mean, Chip, Flounder and Abu were all this way, too, but they were nowhere near as cloying- Meeko had this giant subplot where he harrasses Ratcliffe’s pet pug (Percy), and generally acts… kind of unlikeable. I mean, he’s never really shown HELPING the heroine that I can remember, he’s a total thieving dick (always stealing food), picks on John Smith, and doesn’t even really act cute.
He’s also famous in the “Plushophile” community of the Furry Fandom, for… well, people want to bang stuffed animals of him. I first heard about this like 18 years ago, and he’s still got a WikiFur page for it, and oh my god I searched out WikiFur I cannot un-se what I’ve seen oh god oh god I will never be clean. You should immediately do it, too. Right now.
Smith is an adventurous type always looking for a new land to conquer and enjoy, and he’s famed as an Indian Hunter, able to deal with the “savages” that for some reason always try to stop the white people from taking over their land and killing the lot of them. It’s only when he meets a super-HAWT Native American that he decides his whole schtick stinks, and tries to make peace because they’ve fallen in love over the past hour and a half.
Things go badly, he gets shot, and goes back to England, where he & Pocahontas actually BREAK UP and she gets together with somebody else- therefore it’s kinda funny that he’s depicted as an official Disney Character still with Pocahontas in the Park Characters. I mean, the Princesses have to be trained actresses so they can improv answers and stuff from kids (I know a guy in San Diego who knows a girl who played Ariel & some others- they double-dip identities)- what do they tell the kids who saw Pocahontas II and ask where John Rolfe is?
Smith himself is a lot different from the real character, much like how Pocahontas isn’t really 12 years old in the movies either. The real John Smith was a short, chubby red-haired guy, whereas the movie Smith is a blond-haired Super-Aryan. The second movie actually features some funny stuff with Smith being SO Alpha that he’s doing all these complicated stunts, while poor John Rolfe is as more normal guy, and is stuck taking up the rear in all the big action sequences.
About the Performer: He’s MEL GIBSON. Easily one of Hollywood’s A-List stars of the ’80s and ’90s, continuing on to be an A-List director later on, he was pretty much exposed as an alcoholic racist. He appeared in Mad Max (his breakout role and an iconic movie to pro wrestlers everywhere), the Lethal Weapon movies (one of the biggest Buddy Cop movies), starred in the Oscar Bait (but fantastic) Braveheart, and directed the controversial Passion of the Christ, which was derided on South Park as a long-form snuff film. As John Smith, Gibson gave the classic “well I’m a REAL ACTOR, but thankfully this is an easy-peasy job you can do in your pajamas” kind of performance, barely inflecting his voice at all.
Humorously, Mel’s younger brother Donal (??) played the character in Pocahontas II.
GOVERNOR JOHN RATCLIFFE
And here we come to arguably the greatest flaw in Pocahontas– an unmemorable and weak villain in Ratcliffe. It’s not just that he was a weak, pathetic character (Prince John was worse). Or that he was effeminate (a LOT of the male Disney villains were this, and many of them were memorable). He’s just so… BLAH. Aside from his pair of Villain Songs (Mine! Mine! Mine! and Savages, which are decent, but not in the elites by any stretch), he doesn’t really ham it up like he should, he never OWNS any scene he’s in like most of the villains, he’s not that clever or personable, he’s never quite grovelling ENOUGH (his closest “Pathetic Villain” analogue, Prince John, was basically the snivillingest coward EVER), and he doesn’t get to do anything cool. He turns the men against the Indians super-easily using racism and “othering” tactics, but even THAT isn’t quite virulent enough (compare him to Frollo, for instance). The honest truth is that he’s just not worth remembering, and he holds up as one of the weakest overall Disney Villains as a result.
Ratcliffe starts out as a disingenuous, effeminate man (notably wearing pigtails in his hair and wearing lots of pinks and purples), and immediately acts greedy, lazy and selfish instead of threatening. He does manage to rile the men up against the “Savages” when John Smith (of whom Ratcliffe was suspicious) runs off to hang out with Pocahontas, and ends up getting captured. However, by the movie’s end, he’s bound and gagged, then shipped off to England for punishment.
Ratcliffe reappears in Pocahontas II, and generally acts like a douchebag once more, but this time ends up as King James’s right-hand-man, manipulating things so that the childish King sees Pocahontas as a disrespectful enemy. Oh, and he blows off the previous film’s ending with “Turns out the King believed MY story”. Ratcliffe prepares an armada to assault Jamestown for a war with the Powhatan Tribe, but is stopped by the Johns Rolfe & Smith, who exposes Ratcliffe’s lies once and for all. He is arrested by James, and charged with high treason (a likely capital offense).
The real John Ratcliffe was indeed thought to be corrupt and incompetent, but was messily murdered by the very Indians with whom he’d attempted to trade- they ambushed him and apparently burned him at the stake, tearing his skin off and throwing it into the fire while he watched.
About the Performer: I went into this in Cogsworth’s bio, but David Ogden Stiers is a notable actor with a ton of credits, and became a “regular Disney actor” for a while. Being a Disney Villain was basically his “reward” for being so good in the bit part that was Cogsworth- it’s just too bad that Ratcliffe didn’t really have anything interesting to do. Though as a testament to Stiers’s capabilities, how many people realized he was also Wiggins, Ratcliffe’s servant, and that their scenes together are just Stiers talking to himself?
Kocoum takes the “Victor Laszlo” role in the story, being the somewhat stodgy, boring love interest at first- he’s a super-serious (but heterosexuality-threateningly good-looking) warrior in Powhatan’s tribe, and asks for Pocahontas’s hand in marriage, which threatens to end her dreams of freedom forever (since he’s a boring provider and Pocahontas still wants to jump off of Virginia’s famous 100-foot cliffs). He says almost nothing, having all of five lines before he goes off chasing her & John Smith, where John’s male admirer pulls out a Musket and shoots him (“in the… spirit?” says The Nostalgia Chick- there’s no blood or marks whatsoever).
He’s basically the worst part of being a plot device character- you get almost no characterization and you die super-quickly, without ever really appearing on The Merch or anything. How many of you even knew his damn name? The voice actor has an IMDB page so short that 75% of his credits are directly related to Pocahontas.