Monday, October 29, 2012

The Disney Renaissance Part 6: Pocahontas

By 1995, Disney knew their business. Their animation department had risen from the ashes of the 80's and had become a commercial and critical powerhouse, and they'd gotten very good at assembling the parts needed to produce a hit. For their 33rd animated film, Disney went big, went bold, delving into history to create a story of environmentalism, cultural tolerance, peace, and the temporary and hollow nature of material wealth. A noble effort with the best of intentions.

Of course, you know what they say the road to Hell is paved with. . .

Yeah, it's bad. And no, I don't mean in a The Lion King "vastly overrated narrative mess, but with strong moments" sort of way, or an Aladdin "full of obnoxious meta/pop culture humor but still works" sort of way. And not even in the "holy crap, did they even bother to crack a history book for this?" sense - it's just a confused, poorly-written, dodderingly-paced piece of boring formulaic boilerplate. For all the terribly clever folks who called Avatar "Pocahontas with Cat People," watching this actually gives one appreciation for Cameron's thorough (if cynically measured) developing and pacing of story and character beats in his sci-fi epic.

It bears remembering that this is the movie that most of Disney's animation vets elected to work on over The Lion King, sure that it would be the more successful and prestigious of the two. And it's hard to argue with the group of people who chipped into this film. Mel Gibson was just in the midst of his transformation from a franchise cash cow to a superstar filmmaker in his own right (this was also the year of Braveheart), and the rest of the talent is nothing to sneeze at - everyone from Disney standys and character actors like David Ogden Stiers and Billy Connolly to budding icons like Christian Bale and even the great Russell Means himself lend their voices. Howard Ashman had initially planned to write the song lyrics after Aladdin, but never got the chance, so Alan Menken turns in his first effort without Ashman's collaboration, working with lyricist Stephen Schwartz.

And there are some people who are on their game, but the movie just refuses to reward them for it.

The film takes its narrative (very loosely) for the early days of Jamestown,Virginia at the dawn of the 17th century, and the English settlers' budding conflict with the natives under Chief Powhatan. But almost from the first minutes of the film it already feels hamstrung by the needs of the corporate "How To Make an Animated Blockbuster" machine. Show-stopping musical numbers? Check. Superfluous animal side-kicks? Check. Inappropriate slapstick humor? Check. Strong-minded heroine uninterested in romance until she meets the male lead? You better believe it. What's inane about all this is that the story of Pocahontas and John Smith features discovery and adventure and stirring emotion without the manufactured crap. It dulls the message the film so desperately wants to impart when the movie feels the need to throw on the trappings of a Barbie-shaped Indian Princess and some ridiculous love triangle - a contrivance that is utterly unneeded to relate to the younger audience that the film targets.

I guess you just have to count your blessings that the film decided to forgo the original idea of having the animals talk to Pocahontas. Yeah, that was actually going to happen in this movie, and there was even a good bit of dialogue recorded for a talking turkey voiced by John Candy before the characters was cut following the actor's death in 1994. And while I LOVE me some Candy, I can only imagine what a nerve-grating nightmare that would have been to live through.

Pretty much the only real home run that Pocahontas hits is in terms of its music. Menken had obviously learned very well from working with Howard Ashman over the years and turns in a hell of piece of work. Not only does he lay down some catchy tunes, but the actual songs are clever as hell. The rhyming and patter recalls some of Ashman's best work on Beauty and the Beast and the lyrics themselves are positively sly - the anti-war and pro-tolerance stuff is clear as a bell, but so are sharp digs at biggots obsessed with keeping the races pure in lines like "Here's what you get when races are diverse" put in the mouth of a warmongering gold-grubbing ass. The movie isn't subtle at all in its fervent pro-diplomacy (or anti-gun for that matter) sentiments, and embraces these most in its music.

Unfortunately, the music also leads to another big problem (yeah, there's several) the film has: the entire script seems little more than a tool to string together the big sweeping musical numbers. The pacing is a total mess, starting off languorous and tepid, rushing through what should be important elements in introducing characters, lingering on pointless animal antics, and always forgetting what sort of momentum it was keeping when the next big song comes around. It keeps some characters from feeling fleshed out at all (including the title character) and others seem as though they go through complete character one-eighties in a ridiculously short amount of time.

There's not much more to say about this one - Pocahontas's heart really is in the right place, but it's brought down by a strict adherence to unneeded and - at times - insulting formula (really, did the "forced marriage" card need to be played here?), and maybe a bit of "too big to fail" attitude. Which is a shame, because what the film is saying is well worth heeding.

But yeah, Avatar actually said it better.

This was my personal hump to get over - these couple years in the mid-90's are the hardest to make myself revisit, but I spurred myself on with the thought of what was to come. The later half of this decade didn't have a film that was as successful as The Lion King or as game-changing as Aladdin or as damn-near perfect as Beauty and the Beast, but it had some impressive work all the same. These were films that weren't afraid to push the envelope a bit, and while they stumbled as often as they soared, they reached some exhilarating high points.

My favorite of which is coming next, with a movie full of religious persecution, racism, sexual repression, murder, and what is some of the most gorgeous animation ever to exist in two dimensions.

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