When I was a kid, I thought Pocahontas was an okay movie. It was never my favorite, but I liked the villains and Flit and Meeko. Later on, I went through a cynical period that included an irritation toward the film. “It’s getting history wrong” and “Ooh let’s solve everything with magic yeah sure”. I’m sure we all go through that. Some of us never outgrow it.
Now that I think of myself as a generally balanced and thoroughly positive skeptic, I recently watched Pocahontas again. I’ll admit a part of me remembered my sour feelings but I soon fell in love with the film. I found it to be one of the most mature of Disney’s Animated Classics, and one of its smartest.
The whole “It’s not historically accurate” argument went first. Of course it’s not accurate. It’s fiction. Nobody looks at Inglourious Basterds and complains about it being “historically inaccurate” because it’s just a movie. Pocahontas is also a movie with talking trees and magic hearing abilities, and I’m pretty sure those didn’t exist either. Speaking of the Listen with Your Heart aspect, while I will say it’s probably the weakest part of the film, I get it. From a storytelling perspective, they needed a way to allow these characters to communicate, and since we already had talking trees, it just seems believable enough that we have a magic like that too. It also plays into the themes of the film, how actually listening to each other is better than just acting out of fear and confusion.
Pocahontas tends to be lumped in with movies like Avatar and FernGully and Dances with Wolves for comparison purposes. What is so smart and what puts Pocahontas far above any of those films, in my opinion, is its execution of the concept. It’s not just about a guy learning that maybe his people’s way of thinking is wrong. It’s about BOTH sides realizing they’re wrong. There is no true villain in the film other than hate and fear (and pride, but I’ll get to that when I talk about Ratcliffe in a second). I’ve heard complaints about the lyrics and attitude of the song Savages, but those lyrics are extremely important to these themes. The only complaint I would have is that it’s pretty much the same as The Mob Song in Beauty and the Beast in both mood and purpose. But Savages also leads to an epic reprise that brings the film to its conclusion.
But before I’m done, I want to talk about Ratcliffe. It’s been argued that he is one of the worst or weakest Disney villains, and I fully disagree with the sentiment behind that. Literally, he is possibly the weakest, or at least gives Scar a run for his money. But as a character, I think he’s fascinating. He’s a disgruntled politician who has spent his entire life trying to earn the respect of those above him, only to end up in a worse spot because of it. He knows this is his very last shot at fame and glory, and no matter what it takes, even if it means he has to kill every last Indian, he’s going to do it for the sake of his own name. Every action he takes is out of fear of failing. He doesn’t really care about the gold, but the accolades he’ll get back home for finding it. Honestly, I think he’s one of the most human, most developed Disney villains, especially compared to what Disney was doing at the time (and that is in no way a slight against any of the other great 90s villains).
I also quickly want to say that the voice acting is incredible all around, even from Mel Gibson who I normally don’t particularly care for (I would argue this film and performance is far more powerful than the other 1995 Mel Gibson blockbuster, Braveheart). The animation is gorgeous, fully expressing who Pocahontas is and the world she’s living in. The score might very well be my favorite of any Disney film, and the songs are top notch. I think my only true disappointment with the film is that the Blu-ray doesn’t have the “extended” cut with If I Never Knew You restored, as the DVD did (and if I’m wrong and that cut is on the disc somewhere, please let me know).