John Smith: I’ve seen hundreds of new worlds, Thomas. What could be possibly different about this one?
Beware: Spoilers may follow.
Lion King was considered the peak of the Disney Renaissance. The problem is that once you reach the peak, you can’t climb any higher. Pocahontas was the start of the second half of the Disney Renaissance and while it is by no means a bad movie, it does have a couple of problems.
The story is that English settlers from London are sailing to the New World. Among them are Captain John Smith and the voyage’s leader Governor Ratcliffe who seeks to find gold in the New World. The settlers stumble upon the Powhatan Tribe in Tsenacommach, North America. Smith comes across Chief Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas and the two fall in love. Her father however, disapproves of this and wants her to marry a native warrior named Kocoum. As tensions mount between the Natives and the settlers the two must prevent bloodshed between their people.
The centerpiece of the story lies in the romance between Pocahontas and John Smith. It tells it in a classic vein of works such as Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, etc. with the conflict involving their love being the battle between their families. With the romance being set in discovering the New World the movie has a timeless message about racism and how it lead to carnage upon both sides. The biggest problem however in the story lies in the focus on its tone as the movie has trouble in deciding whether it wants to be adult or kid-friendly. This is strange, as Disney’s previous works have managed to appeal to both. However the kid-friendly and adult appeal are set apart and as a result it’s only capable of pleasing one of the two demographic at a time and it lacks synergy. The kid-friendly and adult moments are at completely separate extremes. On their own they are good tones. However when it comes together it doesn’t work.
The animation in this movie is fantastic. The human character designs are given a more realistic and it makes them rather believable. The expressions and movements look more natural and subtle in bringing out the emotional weight. The animals like Meeko, Flit, and Percy are drawn in a more cartoon-like style but it hits the right amount of cartoony to mesh with the rest of the movie. The backgrounds and colors work in making a realistic nature-like environment as well as capturing the beauty of the environment. It’s easily one of Disney’s best showcases of nature. The animated effects were also utilized down to the letter such as how smoke is used to create imagery, water to convey restlessness or tranquility, or the elements of nature blowing in the wind it does well in giving an extra push to the animation.
While the chemistry of the main characters certainly is present there isn’t much character to them on their own. However the romance works in its impact on those around them. It results in two worlds colliding in a small way that culminate in massive consequences for both sides. It gives a unique balance of peace and war where those around the two leads represent war and peace is represented through the romance, which makes it easier to root for the romance. The rest of the characters sadly don’t have much to them on their own either. Chief Powhatan is the leader of the tribe. Thomas and Nakoma are merely the role of the best friends for the leads. Meeko, Flit, Percy, and Wiggins are merely the comic relief. The villain, Governor Ratcliffe is rather underdeveloped as his motivations merely boil down to just getting gold and how he has little to no regard to those around him. The characters are easy to get invested in given how the conflict plays out but there isn’t much to them on their own.
The songs are great in what they are trying to convey. Much like how Pocahontas and John Smith come from different cultures. The first style is very 17th century London with songs like The Virginia Company and Mine Mine Mine. They help establish the types of characters these people are and their motives. The second style ties into the characters’ connection with nature such as Just Around the Riverbend and Colors of the Wind. Finally there is Savages which blends the two styles together.
Pocahontas has great animation and songs and even has some powerful moments. What holds it back from being among the greats however is its focus on the tone and who it wants to appeal to. The characters aren’t structured together that well either. However the effort still shines throughout the movie and makes it worth a place in the hall of Disney.