Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pocahontas (1995)

By Thunder Fist

The first time I ever saw Pocahontas was just this month when I sat down to watch it so I could write this review. That being the case, I have no nostalgic attachment to Pocahontas as I do to most other Disney movies from the nineties. In retrospect, I’m surprised I missed it. The film was a big success and Pocahontas is well-established as one of Disney’s princesses. I did learn Colors of the Wind almost by heart because it was immediately catapulted to well-deserved fame, but I never saw the film itself until now. And now that I’ve seen it, I can understand why it never drew me.

Early American history—unpatriotic as this sounds—has never been a big draw for me. The story of Pocahontas and John Smith, which I already knew from school, also failed to interest me. As a kid romance left me cold, and it seemed that the story of Pocahontas was mainly focused on the romantic tension between the heroine and Smith. This I find to be the case in the film. However, let me first say that I find Pocahontas and John Smith to be one of the most well-rounded human couples in Disney history. (The animal couples are another story.) Both Pocahontas and Smith are given about equal screen time, and Pocahontas has much greater freedom in her world than Ariel, Jasmine and Belle—her three most recent forebearers—do. All three of these antecedent ladies are captives: Ariel is trapped in the sea, Jasmine in the palace, and Belle in the Beast’s castle. In Pocahontas it is Smith who falls more into the captive place: he is in Pocahontas’s world rather than she in his, and he needs her guidance and wisdom in order to fully understand this world. At the end of the film, he becomes the literal captive of Pocahontas’s people and is only saved from execution by the princess herself.

Aside from Belle and the Beast, Pocahontas and Smith are the most detailed and filled-out human couple of any pre-1995 Disney film I’ve seen. Pocahontas is a strong, thoughtful and energetic young woman; Smith is an ambitious, brave and experienced explorer. They hail from two different worlds that are in conflict throughout the story: the colonizing British and the coastal Native Americans. The story begins with Smith and then transitions smoothly to Pocahontas, and from then on flips back and forth between the British and Native American worlds.

While a childish (maybe just boyish) distaste for romance when I was little is understandable, it doesn’t make for a mature evaluation. I’m of an age now where I appreciate a good romantic story, and I expected to enjoy the film more. Yet despite its strengths, Pocahontas still doesn’t work for me.

The real problem is the dialogue and storyline. With the frequent transitions between the British and the Native Americans, the story feels hesitant and slow. The minor characters never really get developed because there are so many of them. Aside from a few funny moments between the evil British commander and his officious assistant, Wiggin, we have none of the Cogsworth-Lumiere wit or the brilliance of Abu and the Magic Carpet. There aren’t enough connections between the characters aside from Pocahontas and John Smith. As a result, the story doesn’t have the old Disney cohesion and flare. It feels quieter, longer, and rather ponderous, more of a character study of the two central figures than the creation of a fleshed-out and energetic world.

The film does have a beautiful aura: the gorgeousness of its artistry alone makes it a film for Disney to be proud of, and the imaginative depiction of the New World has its equal only in the breathtaking medieval artistry of Sleeping Beauty. What it lacks in the energy of its predecessors it gains in its elegance. The musical score, though not lending itself to the show-tune quality of The Liong King or Beauty and the Beast, is moody and expressive. The use of wind instruments in Pocahontas, the way the music underscores the quiet scenes and the enchanting natural beauty of the New World, is worthy of the highest praise. Pocahontas is a work of art.

But, for me, the storyline is still a problem. There just isn’t a lot of substance to the story aside from the central romance. Yes, there is tension between the Native Americans and the British akin to the Montagues and Capulets; but for me this is a broad picture without a lot of details. The dialogue feels stilted and the minor relationships are one-dimensional. The story tries to do what it can in the short time it has, and a few of the secondary characters are selected for nominal importance in the storyline, but for the most part both the Native Americans and the British seamen remain non-pivotal characters who make decisions and movements en masse. There are Pocahontas’ requisite animal friends and also Grandmother Willow, but these feel too much like stock Disney characters revamped from the earlier films. Disney usually handles stock characters with such finesse that they end up almost stealing the show, but these are a bit dull. With all the real emotional heart of the story thus invested in the two leads, I must find some way to relate deeply to them and their love, but I simply can’t.

The real reason is that I have a hard time investing in stories that are purely romantic. Unlike The Little Mermaid, there is no struggle of a young mermaid desiring something more in her life; unlike Aladdin, there is no longing of a young man to be more highly valued; and unlike Beauty and the Beast, there is no beast to be rescued by a woman’s unselfish love. Pocahontas doesn’t change from the beginning to the end of the film. She falls in love but remains who she is. Instead it is John Smith whose views are so drastically challenged and changed—but he isn’t the real main character; he’s the love interest. Pocahontas suffers from a malady that few other Disney films do: blandness. Despite the racial tensions, its characters are fairly static and, in the end, the British simply go home and Pocahontas remains with her people.

I actually admire this ending: I think it an example of Pocahontas’s integrity that she remains with her people rather than marrying Smith and going with him to England. But the story has no real arc; the central character makes no progress. In the beginning she is longing for adventure and excitement, but she can have adventure and excitement in either the New World or in Britain. Just because she doesn’t marry Smith doesn’t mean her life won’t have adventure. The choice she faces in the end doesn’t compromise or preserve her dreams: it is simply a choice of her love for her people over her love for Smith. I knew from the very start of the film that she was a strong person, so this ending did not surprise me. I think in one of the sequels she eventually marries Smith and goes to England, but here I’m only speaking of Pocahontas as its own feature film.

And this is my opinion of Pocahontas and her film: she is an admirable woman but already grown up when the film begins. She has some doubts and questions, but ultimately she makes all the right choices and her strength, not her love for Smith, bears her through. She’s a great role model but she doesn’t generate enough suspense, and her romance with Smith isn’t something I can get sufficiently involved in. The film is absolutely worth watching for its artwork and its orchestral score, and Colors of the Wind has a secure place among Disney’s hits. But as a story it’s hesitant, slightly disjointed, and too focused on a pair of lovers. In the end, the very absence of anything else to invest in emotionally turns me off altogether.

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