Let’s begin this with a little anecdote: Once, in my Movie Musical class in college, we were discussing animated Disney films, as they dominated the movie musical genre in the 1990s. My teacher made a comment about Pocahontas not being a good film. And I have never seen a class turn on a teacher so fast in all my life. All of us, as a whole, disagreed and argued our points.
I never understood the dislike for this film. There is so much about it to love and appreciate.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first: the writers completely altered actual American history. But, honestly, I’m fine with that. I like to think that’s what actually happened, instead of Pocahontas being a young girl and John Smith being an old bearded white man.
The animation in this film is utterly gorgeous. You can tell that a tremendous amount of thought went into the color palette for this film. The first half of Pocahontas is filled with blues, greens, purples, and light pinks. It’s a very cool color palette. Then, as relations between the Native Americans and the English begin to heat up, so do the colors. There are more reds, oranges, and yellows present. It all comes to a head at part two of the song “Savages”, with some of the most beautiful animation in the film yet. From this moment on, all colors are present in the film, warm and cool tones. It is details like this that make the film so great, I think.
Lyrically, I would argue that this is one of Disney’s best. Between the lyrics for “Steady as the Beating Drum” to “Colors of the Wind” and to “Savages”, the lyrics perfectly help to move the story along and set the tone for what is to come. Cutting the love song between Pocahontas and John Smith was a smart decision. “If I Never Knew You” didn’t fit the tone of the film. The story, after all, is less about the love of Pocahontas and John Smith, but about bridging the gap between cultures and bridging the gap between love and hate.
That’s one of the reasons that I love this film. And, as I’ve grown older, it’s the reason that I love the film more and more. The main focus in Pocahontas isn’t her love story. It’s not about her finding her true love and them living happily ever after. It’s about Pocahontas knowing that she’s destined for more. It’s about her figuring out what that is, and then pursuing it. She chooses to stay with her people in the end because they need her. It sends such a good message to little girls, much like Moana.
The main thing that I do find funny about this film, though, is the pacing of the story. The climax of the film happens with, roughly, ten minutes left in the movie. John Smith is about to die, and he’s saved by Pocahontas, with the wonderful line: “This is where the path of hatred has brought us. This is the path I choose, Father. What will yours be?” From there, the story deescalates rather quickly. That, however, is the only thing that throws me off in the film. Well, that and Mel Gibson’s lack of an English accent.
A lot of love went into this film. That’s evident from the very beginning. I just wish this film got back all that love and then some.