Pocahontas was the first real disappointment of Disney’s animation renaissance. While The Rescuers Down Under did not succeed in theatres it was Pocahontas that was the first disappointment the public noticed. There are several potential reasons for its failure. Expectations after The Lion King, the highest grossing animated feature and critical darling of that time, were incredibly high. I doubt that anything following The Lion King could have surpassed its record-breaking success. However it is difficult to argue that Pocahontas is a perfect film, it is Disney’s most flawed animated feature since Oliver & Company. While Pocahontas has a lot going for it and is still superior to many other films, animated or otherwise, there are some serious problems with the characters that require examination.
The character to start off with is Pocahontas herself. The strength in her character is all in the animation done by master supervising animator, Glen Keane. Keane greatly differentiates her from previous Disney animated heroines in showcasing her strength. While Ariel, Belle and Jasmine were all strong characters they were visually identified by the focus on their beauty. Pocahontas is a visually strong character. She is athletic and always holds a striking posture. The character never comes close to being sexualized, which is sadly rare in animated women. The moment when John Smith essentially falls in love with her is when he sees her in the mist. It is clear that he isn’t in love with her beauty the attraction is to how powerful she is. And the image of Pocahontas standing stoically in the mist is one of the film’s most memorable.
Visuals aside though, Pocahontas is a very poor lead. The strongest staple of the Alan Menken musical is the “I Want,” song. There is a great song in Just Around the River Bend which features top notch animation, but Pocahontas herself doesn’t have any reason to want anything more. Ariel is well established as a curious person (well curious mermaid) and acts very much like a teenager who is ready to leave home. It makes sense that Ariel would want to something more. Belle lives in a stifling community, Aladdin is struggling to feed himself and Quasimodo is held captive. Those characters all work as great lead characters because the audience can root for them and will follow them. It is hard to gain interest in Pocahontas because her world is essentially shown to be a paradise that she is thriving in.
Disney gets a lot of criticism for utilizing funny animals and the criticism is well deserved in movies like Pocahontas. The funny animal sidekick is a terrific plot device for fleshing out the main characters. Aladdin gets away with having three animals and a magic carpet because they all expand the leads. Abu, Raja and Iago give Aladdin, Jasmine and Jafar someone to communicate with and their characters are thus expanded. A major problem with Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules is that the sidekicks do nothing to advance the leads. Characters like Meeko and Percy become irritating and intrusive when they go off on their own subplots, which do not directly relate to Pocahontas.
Another trope of the Alan Menken Disney musicals is a mentor/cheerleader character, which in this movie is the tree Grandmother Willow. A talking tree is one of the more creative ideas of the movie, but the potential is never reached because her character pales compared to other Disney mentors. The mentor character should be their own character that has a reason to be vested in the lead. Ariel is Sebastian’s responsibility, the servants need Belle in order to be human again, Aladdin is giving Genie his freedom, Hercules is Phil’s last chance, etc. Grandmother Willow falls short in comparison to those great characters.
The final character to criticize is Governor Radcliffe (John Smith is too dull to criticize). Radcliffe seriously struggles in the role of the villain. This really is not a movie that needed a bad guy, clashing cultures provides more than enough conflict. Which is where the character should have stayed, just a human on one side of a conflict. The most provocative theme of Pocahontas is the idea that two struggling civilizations are essentially the same. Having a one-dimensional villain on one side and overly noble people on another causes the theme to lose credibility. Radcliffe is as the song Savages says, “barely even human,” and he does not work as the leader of a faction the film is trying to portray as legitimate.
Pocahontas is an interesting movie. There is a lot to love among the flaws. Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz’s songs are still great and Disney animators are the only ones who can improve on nature. Most of all it is ambitious. Disney is a studio that many only expect to entertain children; Pocahontas started an overlooked period where they explore some mature themes that have never been tackled by mainstream animation or family entertainment.
The racial element is also worth noting. Of course this movie is not historically accurate and is seen by many as racist. But it is huge that a studio that is comfortable animating white princesses would put such effort and push behind a big budget, tentpole movie about Native American characters voiced by Native American actors. This is something that live-action really has yet to do. Despite the popular image that Disney is made up of a bunch of racists plotting their next insensitive movie they are really the only ones in Hollywood to create big movies about Native Americans, Asians and African Americans and expect those movies to succeed.