THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Pocahontas’

The one that twisted history too far.

Despite one unfortunate hiccup along the way, in the early 1990s, Disney’s animation department were experiencing a hot streak of critically acclaimed and publicly adored films not seen since the days of Walt Disney himself. With each new animated release, the box office results only grew bigger, shattering the very records set by the preceding film. The merchandise was flying off the shelves. VHS sales were booming. Theme park attendance was up. Disney was everywhere you looked. The house of mouse was finally back on top.

However, the most significant moment of this boom period occurred on February 19, 1992, when Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film in history to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. On that fateful morning, something within Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg changed. From that day on, he became determined to deliver another animated film that would also snatch a Best Picture nomination.

By this point, it was far too late to adjust comedy-heavy Aladdin to fit the mould of a serious Oscar contender for Best Picture. And Katzenberg had such little faith in The Lion King, he could barely fathom the film earning $50 million at the box office, let alone capturing the Academy’s attention. Instead, Katzenberg set his sights firmly on turning the currently-in-development Pocahontas into the kind of sweeping romance Oscar voters would eat up. As it turned out, the release of Pocahontas would ultimately mark the beginning of the downturn in Disney animation. And Katzenberg would depart the studio before it was even released.

The idea for an animated retelling of the life of Native American icon Pocahontas began in 1991 when The Rescuers Down Under director Mike Gabriel suggested the project at the studio’s annual “Gong Show” pitch meeting, using an image of Tiger Lily from Peter Pan and a logo the animation team had mocked-up. The director pitched the project as a sweeping “star-crossed lovers” romantic drama, with Pocahontas torn between her burgeoning love for an English settler and her obligation to her father and people.

As fate would have it, Vice President of Feature Animation Peter Schneider had been wanting to develop an animated adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for years. Gabriel’s Pocahontas pitch allowed the studio to tackle a similar narrative, while still appearing fresh and unique. The project also offered Disney the chance to right the wrongs of their past animated depictions of Native Americans. Gabriel’s pitch was immediately approved and, by all accounts, became the quickest story turnaround in Disney’s history.

Katzenberg saw Pocahontas as a genuine candidate to not only become the second animated film nominated for Best Picture, but, more importantly, the first animated film to win the prize. Katzenberg was further encouraged by Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves sweeping the Academy Awards that same year, taking home seven awards including Best Picture, while also earning over $420 million at the worldwide box office. Surely Disney’s interracial animated love story would be equally as well received by both the Academy and the general public.

After completing his work as the supervising animator of Genie in Aladdin, Eric Goldberg was asked to co-direct Pocahontas alongside Gabriel. Given his background and experience, Goldberg wrongly assumed this would be another comedic caper like Aladdin. When Schneider informed Goldberg the film would be something more in line with Beauty and the Beast, he was initially hesitant to tackle a romantic drama. However, after witnessing the sights of the 1992 Los Angeles race-fuelled riots, he realised Pocahontas offered the chance to craft a racially important film and committed to directing.

After the success of enlisting Broadway producers to assist with both Aladdin and The Lion King, Katzenberg hired Broadway stage manager Jim Pentecost to make his producing debut on Pocahontas. Television writer Carl Binder was assigned to write the screenplay, alongside junior writers Susannah Grant and Philip LaZebnik. With his team now fully assembled, Katzenberg informed the board he predicted Pocahontas would be a huge hit, while The Lion King was likely to be less of a success.

As word spread of Katzenberg’s faith in Pocahontas, practically every animator in the department wanted to work on the project. Due to his success with creating the lead characters of Ariel, Beast, and Aladdin, supervising animator Glen Keane was assigned the task of bringing the titular heroine to life. After notoriously departing the studio in 1979 to join former Disney animator Don Bluth’s rival animation studio, Sullivan-Bluth Studios, John Pomeroy returned to Disney after hearing rumblings of the Pocahontas project through industry connections. Katzenberg assigned him the role of creating Pocahontas’ love interest, John Smith.

In June 1992, the filmmaking team embarked on a research trip to the Jamestown Settlement where they met with Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow-McGowan, a descendent of the Powhatan Indians, the tribe which the real Pocahontas belonged to. Following the trip, Cusalow-McGowan served as a paid consultant on the production, alongside story supervisor Tom Sito, who became the film’s unofficial historical consultant.

As Sito and the writing team continued their research into Pocahontas, they began to realise her real romantic history was far from the sweeping Romeo and Juliet-type saga Katzenberg and Gabriel had envisioned. In reality, Pocahontas (whose real name was actually Mataoka) met John Smith when she was roughly between 11-13 years old and Smith was somewhere between 26-28. There was no concrete evidence the two had a romantic relationship, nor was there any proof the pair were even particularly fond of each other.

With Katzenberg’s approval, the team made the decision to present an animated tale that took heavily dramatic license with the truth to create something less historically accurate and more emotionally resonant and socially responsible. Pocahontas’ real history was full of death, violence, and an eventual love story with a completely different man. This piece of revisionist history fit into the mould of a Disney animated romance, but ultimately angered Custalow-McGowen, who later felt ashamed her name was attached to such a historically inaccurate film.

Initially, the story team designed Pocahontas’ animal friends Meeko the raccoon and Flit the hummingbird as talking animals who helped guide the heroine on her journey. But Katzenberg felt it was inappropriate for an icon of Native American history to suddenly have the ability to talk to animals and instructed the story team to rewrite the roles as mute creatures who interacted with Pocahontas through mime. For some inexplicable reason, Katzenberg has no issue with Pocahontas being blessed with the ability to talk to a tree which contained the spirit of her grandmother.

To overcome the historically accurate issue of Pocahontas and John Smith speaking completely different languages, Pocahontas’ late mother was depicted as a wind spirit who blessed the pair with the ability to understand each other by way of a magical breeze. This blended perfectly with the film’s signature song, “Colors of the Wind,” which allowed the two star-crossed lovers to bond over the majesty of the land and the magical gifts of the spirits surrounding them.

For the film’s sweeping score and musical numbers, Katzenberg again turned to Alan Menken, who had just finished crafting the music for Aladdin with lyricist Tim Rice. While Rice chose The Lion King as his next project, Menken saw Pocahontas as more fitting with his musical style, partnering with Broadway lyricist Stephen Schwartz to create seven tracks for the film’s soundtrack. Menken’s score was the largest and most complex work he had produced thus far, requiring over a year of production and recording time to perfect the expansive scope of his writing.

After receiving backlash over their predominantly white casting choices for both Aladdin and The Lion King, Katzenberg was determined to find a Native American to voice Pocahontas. When Native American actress Irene Bedard auditioned, they knew they had found their star. Bedard was of Inuit and Cree ancestry and brought instant authenticity to the role. However, Bedard had no vocal training and her singing voice was not strong enough for Menken and Schwartz’s soaring numbers. As such, Broadway actress Judy Kuhn was hired to provide Pocahontas’ singing voice, marking the second time the speaking and singing voices of a Disney princess were provided by two different people.

For the role of John Smith, Mel Gibson was hired to voice the English settler, with Gibson stating he had long wanted to make a movie his children could watch. Despite his lack of singing experience, Gibson underwent extensive vocal training to allow the actor to perform the musical numbers. At the time, Gibson was one of the biggest names in the industry, and Katzenberg saw his name-recognition as bringing potential instant box office success to the project.

Just over a year from the scheduled release of Pocahontas, the executive structure of the Disney studio underwent a massive change after a tragic loss. On April 3, 1994, Disney President Frank Wells died in a helicopter crash in Nevada caused by inclement weather. While the company mourned the loss of their leader, CEO Michael Eisner took the loss particularly hard, as his close working relationship had been key to the company’s success over the last decade.

For many years, Eisner had promised the position to Katzenberg when Wells retired. However, Eisner instead assumed Wells’ duties and refused to offer the position to Katzenberg, seeking to find a suitable replacement from outside the studio. Tensions soon grew between Eisner, Katzenberg, and chairman Roy E. Disney, who felt Katzenberg’s ego was out of control and no longer in line with the vision for the future of the company. As such, Katzenberg resigned and soon formed his own rival studio DreamWorks SKG, with partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. He later sued Disney to recover the money he felt he was owed, settling out of court for an estimated $250 million.

Despite such disruptions in the boardroom, production on Pocahontas remained on track. In an attempt to replicate the rousing success of the early “Circle of Life” teaser trailer for The Lion King, the studio released the full four-minute-long musical number “Colors of the Wind” as the first trailer for Pocahontas in November 1994 to accompany the Thanksgiving re-release of The Lion King. Ahead of its wide release, the studio held a massive public premiere on June 10, 1995, in New York’s Central Park, which included a live performance by Vanessa Williams. It’s estimated over 100,000 people were in attendance, making it the largest film premiere in history.

Pocahontas was released on June 16, 1995, to generally mixed reviews from critics. Entertainment Weekly found it to be “the first of the new-era Disney cartoons that feels less than animated,” while The Washington Post felt the film “recycled elements from Snow White to The Lion King.” The film was generally denounced by Native American groups, with Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan Renape Nation stating the film “distorts history beyond recognition” and “perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation.”

After the unprecedented box office success of The Lion King, the final figures for Pocahontas were relatively disappointing by comparison. In the U.S., Pocahontas grossed $141 million, while internationally, the film elicited a further $204 million for a worldwide total of $346 million, less than half the total gross of The Lion King. This made Pocahontas the first animated film since The Rescuers Down Under to perform worse than its predecessor and marked the beginning of the decline in box office takings for Disney animated films.

While Katzenberg’s misguided dreams of Pocahontas capturing a Best Picture nomination did not come to fruition, the film did receive two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “Colors of the Wind.” After years of Disney’s dominance of the Best Original Score category where the studio had won four of the past six awards, the Academy amended its rules to split the category into Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score. As such, Pocahontas won the latter category, with Menken and Schwartz also winning for Best Original Song.

The film’s soundtrack was another resounding success for Disney, with triple-platinum certification for sales in excess of three million copies. The album reached #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, with Vanessa Williams’ pop cover of “Colors of the Wind” peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and winning a Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media. It remains Williams’ biggest hit and once again proved a track from a Disney animated film had the power to capture the pop culture zeitgeist beyond the film itself.

In the annals of Disney history, Pocahontas has always paled in comparison to the four films which preceded it. Its relative failure at the box office and mixed reaction from critics stood as the end of an era of unparalleled critical and commercial success. Pocahontas was undoubtedly an ambitious project that simply didn’t meet the expectations set by its production team. Perhaps audiences simply weren’t ready for such a wildly unique title. And its denouncement by Native American groups certainly didn’t help.

And that’s the inherent problem with Pocahontas. By twisting history to the point of total fabrication, Pocahontas feels like little more than a white perspective of the experiences of people of colour. By ignoring the contributions and guidance of actual Native Americans, the production team crafted their own vision of the life of an important figure in Native American history. They slapped together a love story from nothing and the end result feels wildly inauthentic.

That being said, the animation of Pocahontas does provide the occasional moment of brilliance to showcase the deft talents of the animators, particularly the entire “Colors of the Wind” sequence, which may not match the grandeur of something like “Circle of Life” but the imagery is beautifully evocative. It’s just a shame the remainder of the soundtrack is largely forgettable. In an era of animated films overflowing with numerous classic songs, Pocahontas could really only muster one great number and a surplus of filler tracks to keep the narrative moving.

It was naturally inspiring to see Disney challenge themselves by presenting a Disney princess character who didn’t fit their usual mould. To see a woman of colour lead a Disney animated film was a landmark moment for cinema, even if the film she found herself in couldn’t quite craft an authentic depiction of her life. It also didn’t help that just five months later Toy Story would arrive in cinemas, and, suddenly, hand-drawn animation began to look passé. While the Disney Renaissance would continue, its golden lustre was beginning to fade.

Is Pocahontas a Disney Classic? There are many, many issues with the historical inaccuracies of this film that damage its overall intent. While Pocahontas stood as the dawn of a new era of Disney princesses, its narrative couldn’t match the magic of its predecessors. Regardless, it’s beautiful animation and inspiring leading lady provide enough justification to consider this a Disney Classic.

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