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20 Weeks of Disney Animation: ‘Pocahontas’

Disney’s Pocahontas is a film that would likely not be made today. That is, at least not the Pocahontas that we got in 1995. Though it was well-intentioned by the filmmakers, it paints a problematic picture of the “history” of the title character by fictionalizing much of the things that we do know about her and making other things up completely. Because of this, it is generally considered to be a lesser film among those made during the Disney renaissance, receiving quite a bit of backlash upon its release.

Read: 20 Weeks of Disney Animation: ‘The Lion King’

Pocahontas was a first for Disney when it was released in 1995. This was the first time Disney had made an animated movie based on real people and events. As previously stated, the main problem with the film is that many of the things depicted simply didn’t happen. For instance, Pocahontas was actually much younger when John Smith arrived, likely only 10 or 11. This meant that they most likely did not fall in love, which is the entire backbone of the film. Interestingly, Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg was banking on the success of this film and was thrown for a loop when the success turned out to be The Lion King. The success of The Lion King has impacted virtually every aspect of The Walt Disney Company over the past several years, in stark contrast to the somewhat lackluster performance to Pocahontas.

Personally, I have fond memories of the film, mostly due to the beautiful music of Alan Menken and the inspired lyrics of Stephen Schwartz. Pocahontas, in my opinion, features one of the best and most underrated scores written during this period in Disney history.  The score is simply breathtaking. If you can, I suggest watching the movie with the cut song “If I Never Knew You”. It adds weight and depth to a scene that is vastly less effective without it.

Live-action remake: Though it has been rumored, there is no live-action remake actively in the works for Pocahontas.

Pocahontas in the theme parks: Pocahontas can be seen throughout the theme parks in various ways including parades as well as in nighttime shows like Fantasmic! Characters from the film can occasionally be seen around the park as well, though they are less prominent than other characters from the era.

Sequel: The sequel, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, was released three years after the original, straight to home video. The film faced a unique challenge that doesn’t apply to any other Disney sequel. Not only did it need to continue and build upon the story from the original film but it also needs to account for the history of the character as well. The filmmakers attempted to do this by introducing new characters such as John Rolfe, Pocahontas’s real-life husband. However, like the first film, a lot of liberty is taken with actual history and that should be kept in mind upon viewing. The film suffers from the same problem as the majority of these sequels: it is wholly unnecessary and largely uninspired. The music is mostly so-so, with a couple of exceptions, specifically those sung by Pocahontas herself.

For further discussion on this and other sequels, check out my 25 Weeks of DisneyToon Sequels.

Pocahontas on stage: Interestingly, Pocahontas is the only Alan Menken score from the Disney Renaissance that has had no presence on the musical theatre stage. From Beauty and the Beast on Broadway to the recent stage adaptation of Hercules, Menken’s Disney music has found a great life outside of the animated films. Could this stem from the controversy garnered from the historical inaccuracies in the film? Quite possibly.

Despite this, a live show was present in the Disney parks in the 90s. Titled The Spirit of Pocahontas, this was a shortened version of the film, with impressive special effects and, of course, the music. With a runtime of a half-hour, it could be seen at Disneyland’s Fantasyland Theater and at the Backlot Theater at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Pocahontas is available to stream on Disney+.

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