Pocahontas (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Anyone who expects historical accuracy from a Disney animated feature should be ashamed of themself. Those approaching Pocahontas in anticipation of a true-to-history account of the early days of Jamestown are in for a rude awakening. In reality, Pocahontas was a 12-year old Powhatan girl who never had a romance with English settler John Smith (although she later married John Rolfe, the man famous for bringing tobacco back to England). Writers Binder, Grant, and LaZebnik have changed those details (and more) in an effort to create a story with appeal for both children and adults. Taking advantage of the studio's breathtakingly intricate animation, directors Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg have breathed vitality into this, the fifth "new wave" Disney animated picture.

Despite obvious similarities -- Menken's music, a heroine who doesn't want her father to choose her husband, and a small legion of animals -- Pocahontas is actually something of a departure from the recent batch of releases (A Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King). This film isn't quite as cute; deals with some reasonably serious, "adult" issues; and contains an element of poignancy. The cartoonish animal sidekicks, which include a raccoon, a hummingbird, and a pug, are amusing as ever, but this time around, they don't have voices (although Linda Hunt gives speech to the talkative Grandmother Willow).

Considering the less upbeat nature of the story, Pocahontas isn't as fun or energetic as its Disney predecessors. The plot moves somewhat slowly, disdaining the frantic pace of The Lion King. The Menken/Schwartz musical production numbers are lively (and probably better than anything since Beauty and the Beast), but their on-screen time represents less than a third of the movie's "action."

Pocahontas presents a fictionalized chronicle of the arrival of English settlers in Virginia. Led by a greedy, bombastic governor (voiced by Beauty and the Beast alum David Ogden Stiers) and Captain John Smith (voice of Mel Gibson), the explorers have come to the New World in search of gold. They promptly begin cutting down trees, digging holes, and preparing to kill the Indians. Meanwhile, a young native woman, Pocahontas (speaking voice of Irene Bedard, who was also the physical model for the character; singing voice of Judy Kuhn), observes the newcomers with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. Her father, Chief Powhatan (voice of Native American activist/actor Russell Means), is certain that the white mens' landing means war. And the only hope to avert a pitched battle arises as a result of the romance that develops between Smith and Pocahontas.

Several recognizable themes suffuse Pocahontas: the stupidity of wanton destruction, the need for tolerance between those of different races and cultures, and the forks in life's road offered by fate. While none is presented with any special subtlety (after all, children are supposed to get the message), there is surprisingly little preaching. It would have been easy to turn this into a "Native American good/White Man bad" film, but positive and negative traits are shown on both sides. Ogden Stiers' governor will not go down in history as one of the great Disney villains. He's more of a loud-mouthed boor than anything else -- not an evil-to-the-bone nasty like Jaffar or Ursula.

Pocahontas is going to make a ton of money, both on its nationwide opening weekend and in subsequent weeks. Children everywhere will flock to see it, accompanied by adults who rightfully recognize Disney animated films as solid entertainment for the over-ten crowd. The only question about this movie is whether, without a happily-ever-after ending, it will attract the repeat business of Aladdin and The Lion King. Regardless of what the final box office tally says, however, Disney has come up with another winner.

Pocahontas (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 1:21
U.S. Release Date: 1995-06-16
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1