Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Pocahontas

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Pocahontas

Year: 1995

Source materials : Very loosely based on the life of Pocahontas and the writings of John Smith

Budget: $55 million

Box office: $346.1 million

Plot: In 1607, the Susan Constant sails to the New World from London, carrying English settlers from the Virginia Company. On board are Captain John Smith and the voyage’s leader Governor Ratcliffe, who seeks gold to bring him wealth and status.

Along the way, the Susan Constant is caught in a North Atlantic storm, and Smith saves a young, inexperienced crewmate named Thomas from drowning. As they approach the New World, the settlers, including Smith, talk of adventure, finding gold, fighting ‘Injuns’, and perhaps settling in the new land. In the Powhatan tribe in Tsenacommacah, North America, Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, fears being possibly wed to Kocoum, a brave warrior whom she sees as too serious for her own free-spirited personality. Powhatan gives Pocahontas her mother’s necklace as a present.

Pocahontas, along with her friends, the raccoon Meeko and hummingbird Flit, visit Grandmother Willow, a spiritual talking willow tree, and speaks of a dream involving a spinning arrow, and her confusion regarding what her path in life should be. Grandmother Willow then alerts Pocahontas to the arriving English. Ratcliffe has Jamestown built in a wooded clearing and immediately has the crewmen dig for gold. Smith departs to explore the wilderness and encounters Pocahontas.

They quickly bond, fascinated by each other’s worlds and end up falling in love, despite Powhatan’s orders to keep away from the English after Kocoum and other warriors engage them in a fight. Meanwhile, Meeko meets Percy, Ratcliffe’s pet pug, and becomes the bane of his existence.

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Pocahontas introduces Smith to Grandmother Willow and avoids two other crewmen, but Pocahontas’s best friend Nakoma discovers her relationship with Smith and warns Kocoum. Ratcliffe also learns of Smith’s encounters and angrily warns Smith against sparing any natives he comes across on pain of death.

Kocoum

Later, Smith and Pocahontas meet with Grandmother Willow and plan to bring peace between the colonists and the tribe. Smith and Pocahontas share a kiss, while Kocoum and Thomas, sent by Ratcliffe to spy on Smith, witness from afar. Enraged, Kocoum attacks and attempts to kill Smith, but Thomas intervenes with his musket and kills Kocoum, who destroys Pocahontas’ necklace in the process.

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Smith orders Thomas to leave just before the tribesmen come and capture Smith while Kocoum’s body is taken away. Enraged at Kocoum’s death, Powhatan declares war on the English, beginning with Smith’s execution at sunrise. Pocahontas tries to convince him otherwise, but Powhatan refuses to listen, as he is furious with her for not listening to his orders to remain in the village.

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Thomas reaches Jamestown safely at night and warns the crewmen of Smith’s capture. Ratcliffe then rallies his men to battle using this as an excuse to annihilate the tribe and find their non-existent gold. That same night, Powhatan also orders his men to prepare for battle.

A desperate Pocahontas visits Grandmother Willow, where Meeko hands her Smith’s compass. Pocahontas realizes Smith’s compass was the spinning arrow from her real life encounter, which leads to her destiny. Just then morning comes, and Powhatan and his tribe forcibly bring Smith to a cliff overlooking a clearing for execution. Meanwhile, Ratcliffe leads the armed colonists to the cliff to fight Powhatan’s warriors.

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Just as Powhatan is about to kill Smith, Pocahontas stops him and finally convinces him to end the fighting between the two groups. Everyone accepts gracefully, except Ratcliffe, who tries to shoot Powhatan dead in anger, but inadvertently shoots Smith instead when he shields Powhatan. Ratcliffe is then arrested by his crewmen, who turn on him for hurting their comrade.

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In the end, Smith is forced to return home to receive medical treatment, while Ratcliffe is also sent back to England to face punishment for his crimes. Smith asks Pocahontas to come with him, but she chooses to stay with her tribe. Meeko and Percy, now friends, give Pocahontas her mother’s necklace completely fixed. Smith leaves without Pocahontas but with Powhatan’s blessing to return in the future.

Background: Following the release of The Rescuers Down Under, Mike Gabriel considered adapting Western legends such as Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, and Pecos Bill to into animated films before conceiving of Pocahontas. Coincidentally, Feature Animation president Peter Schneider was working an animated version of Romeo and Juliet, and observed several similarities between his idea and Gabriel’s. Schneider recalled, “We were particularly interested in exploring the theme of ‘If we don’t learn to live with one another, we will destroy ourselves.’

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The filmmakers embarked on a trip to the Jamestown Settlement where they met Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow-McGowan and Debbie “White Dove” Custalow, both descendants of the Powhatan Indians. Custalow-McGowan served as a consultant. Later, when it came to light that historical accuracy was not being pursued to the extent she had hoped, McGowan has voiced her feelings of shame she felt in conjunction with her work on the film, saying, “[she] wish[ed her] name wasn’t on it”. When searching for an appropriate age for Pocahontas to begin her relationship with Smith, Glen Keane explained, “We had the choice of being historically accurate or socially responsible, so we chose the socially responsible side” by increasing Pocahontas’s age from a girl into a young woman.

Susannah Grant was selected by Disney as a screenwriter on Pocahontas after winning the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. For the villain, they chose John Ratcliffe, whose portrayal was based on actual English captains, including John Martin, Christopher Newport and Edward Maria Wingfield.

Changes from the Source Material: This is a completely fictionalized version of the story. According to Smith, he was as about to be executed when Pocahontas threw herself on top of him, begging for his life. However historians doubt the event ever took place.

Several other things in the film are inconsistent with history:

  • Pocahontas’ real name was Matoaka. “Pocahontas” was only a nickname, and it can variously be translated to “little wanton”, “playful one”, “little brat” or “the naughty one”.
  • In the film, Pocahontas is a young adult; in reality, she was around 10 or 11 at the time John Smith arrived with the Virginia Company in 1607.
  • Smith is portrayed as an amiable man; in reality, he was described as having a harsh exterior by his fellow colonists.
  • Historically, there is no evidence of a romantic relationship emerging between Pocahontas and John Smith.
  • English colonists led by Samuel Argall captured Pocahontas three years after John Smith departed for England; she converted to Christianity in Henricus and later married John Rolfe, who was known for introducing tobacco as a cash crop.
  • She changed her name to Rebecca.
  • She’s actually most famous for visiting England as an adult, where she died.

Animation: Michael Giamo was inspired by Disney artists Richard Kelsey, Eyvind Earle, and Mary Blair. Glen Keane was inspired for the look of Pocahontas by Shirley ‘Little Dove’ Custalow-McGowan and Devi White Dove, the consultants who were descended from Pocahontas.

John Pomeroy cited inspiration for John Smith from Errol Flynn and Gibson.

Chris Buck served as the supervising animator for Percy, Wiggins, and Grandmother Willow. For Grandmother Willow, the face was traditionally animated by Buck, while the cowl and the trunk of the tree was digitally animated under the supervision of Steve Goldberg.

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Music and Songs: Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were planning to write songs for this film once they were finished working on Aladdin, but Ashman died in 1991.

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Disney immediately contacted Stephen Schwartz, who, after working on Working, Rags, and Children of Eden, had quit theater and was taking psychology courses at New York University; he was brought on board to write the lyrics.1 This would mark the first time Menken had collaborated without Ashman for a Disney animated film.2

  • “The Virginia Company”
  • “Steady as the Beating Drum”
  • “Just Around the Riverbend”
  • “Listen With Your Heart “
  • “Mine, Mine, Mine”
  • “Colors of the Wind”
  • “Savages”

Voice Cast:

Irene Bedard played Pocahontas. She was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and is of Inupiat, Yupik, Inuit, Cree and Métis ancestry. Her first role was as Mary Crow Dog in the television production, Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee. She appeared in Terence Malick’s The New World, as Pocahontas’s mother. In 2005, she was cast in the television mini-series Into the West. Judy Kuhn was singing voice of Pocahontas. She made her Broadway debut in the 1985 original production of the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Subsequent Broadway roles include Les Misérables, Chess, She Loves Me, and Fun Home.

Mel Gibson 3 as John Smith. He is best known for his roles in the Lethal weapon and Mad Max series. He is the director of Braveheart, 4 The Passion of the Christ, Apocolypto, and Hacksaw Ridge. Russell Means as Chief Powhatan. He was an Oglala Lakota activist for the rights of American Indian people, and a prominent member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). He appeared in The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, Natural Born Killers, Windrunner, Buffalo Girls, and had a cameo in the miniseries Into the West.

Christian Bale as Thomas, started as a child actor in Empire of the Sun, Henry V, Treasure Island, Newsies, Swing Kids, Little Women, Velvet Goldmine, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As an adult he appeared in American Psycho, the Machinist, The Prestige, I’m Not There, 3:10 to Yuma and Terminator Salvation. He’s best known for playing Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. His portrayal of Dicky Eklund in The Fighter earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Linda Hunt as Grandmother Willow. She appeared in Popeye, Dune, Silverado, Kindergarten Cop, The Relic, Yours Mine and Ours and Stranger Than Fiction. She currently portrays Henrietta “Hetty” Lange on the CBS television series NCIS: Los Angeles. She played Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. 5

David Ogden Stiers returns as Governor Ratcliffe. He also provided the voice of Wiggins. Michelle St. John plays Nakoma, and James Apaumut Fall plays Kocoum. Danny Mann, Billy Connolly, Joe Baker, Frank Welker, and Jim Cummings round out the cast.

Critical Reception: While there were many opinions on the film, I am going to give the white guys a break and present the views of a few native American voices. Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan Renape Nation says the film “distorts history beyond recognition” and “perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation”. Roy claims that Disney refused the tribe’s offers to help create a more culturally and historically accurate film. However, Russell Means, who portrays Chief Powhatan in the film, praised the film, saying “Pocahontas is the first time Eurocentric male society has admitted its historical deceit. It makes the stunning admission that the British came over here to kill Indians and rape and pillage the land.”

Legacy: A video game entitled Disney’s Pocahontas based on the film was released on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive.

Pocahontas was followed by a direct-to-video sequel entitled Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World. Bedard and Kuhn reprised their roles as Pocahontas’ speaking and singing voices, while John Smith was voiced by Donal Gibson. Pocahontas occasionally appears in the parks.

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Pocahontas, alongside other Disney Princesses, is set to briefly appear in the film Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2.

My take: I sometimes wonder why they thought doing a historical tale and then changing it so much was a good idea. I understand that they wanted to have a Native American Princess, but couldn’t they have chosen one of the many other stories in Native American culture? The Maid of the Mist, perhaps? 

That being said, there are some gorgeous moments in the film. The forest looks beautiful,  if not quite accurate (coastal Virginia has no mountains,  or cliffs).

Next Week: We’re taking a rather goofy detour before we head to Andy’s bedroom