Wednesday 28 August 2013

Munir's Disney Retrospective - Animated Classic #33: Pocahontas (1995)

It seemed rather impossible for Disney to do anything wrong after The Lion King. After that film's gigantic success, the studio positioned itself as the leading animation studio, obliterating what little competition they had at the time. Boy, what a difference one year makes! Pocahontas was destined for greatness from the very beginning. Before his bitter departure from the studio, Jeffrey Katzenberg put all of his effort into making this film the 'new Beauty and the Beast'. Top animators like Glen Keane were working on it, legendary composer Alan Menken was attached to score it, and Disney was proudly announcing that this was their first feature film based on real character. What could possibly go wrong? Well apparently many things because nowadays, Pocahontas is viewed as the 'beginning of the end' for Disney, and the start of their decline. While I can agree that Pocahontas does not surpass its predecessor in any way, and that it was indeed it a decline from its earlier predecessors, I also think that it has an undeservedly bad reputation, that it offers great entertainment and is still one of the most ambitious and beautiful films that ever came from the studio.

But in terms of things that worked against the film: First of all, when Disney said that this film was based on a real character, people - especially historians - thought that this was going to be a faithful retelling of the title character. When that didn't happen, they unanimously dismissed the film, declaring it sacrilege that didn't deserve to be seen. In retrospect, I think Disney should've said that it was a loose adaptation of Pocahontas's life. But also, I think that people should know that Disney has always taken liberties when adapting their films. Just take a look at Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and more and you can see that none of them are faithful to their respective source material. With that taken into account, Pocahontas becomes a much more fulfilling experience with great characters that just happen to be real ones, but that become new entities within the film's universe. But if you're expecting a history lesson from Disney, well, look elsewhere. Another factor that dampened Pocahontas's reputation was the fact that Pixar released their first feature film later the same year. Toy Story became an instant success, changing forever the animation industry and making computer animation relevant. That film remains an undisputed classic and, of course, Pocahontas suffers by comparison.

However, taken on its own, Pocahontas offers a surprisingly touching experience with wonderfully layered characters and breathtaking sceneries. Moreover, the score and songs remain one of the high points of the movie making it even more grand; the "Colors of the Wind" sequence is one of the most superb accomplished elements from the studio's vast history, combining a phenomenal song with exquisite animation and comprising the film's message of acceptance and tolerance (a message that sometimes come off as heavy handed and preachy in the rest of the film) in one beautiful and romantic moment. Another aspect worth mentioning is the epic ending where Disney didn't go to the usual 'happy ever after' finale and instead gave us a more touching and realistic approach to it, which I think only adds to the film's magnificence. Without its baggage, Pocahontas offers some unique, darker and more mature storytelling than other animated films. Yes, it does have some flaws but they do not merit the negative energy that surrounds the film. Pocahontas is no Lion King, but it's no Chicken Little either. Rating: 4/5.

Next Week: Animated Classic #34 Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).