Monday, January 21, 2013

1995 - Pocahontas

Man, oh, man. We have seen Disney flying high before, but never this high or this consistently. Did the Lion King make money? Try highest-grossing animated film of all time. And while box office records like that don’t mean much unless adjusted for inflation, it’s still remarkably impressive that it held that record until Toy Story 3 came along to unseat it with the benefit of a higher base ticket price, a 3D price bump, AND being the last entry in a beloved series. In 1994, the merchandise alone for The Lion King netted them a FREAKING BILLION DOLLARS.

And a freaking impossible Genesis game.
So they felt bulletproof at this point, and they were sure their latest work would go even higher. And they went all-out on this one. From the moment they announced the project - a sweeping romantic epic inspired by the real-life story of Pocahontas and John Smith - they were on a non-stop binge of promotion, merchandising, and advertising. Feature articles, fast-food tie-ins, a primetime network making-of special that I remember as oddly defensive about the movie’s historical accuracy, you name it. And it all culminated in the biggest movie premiere of all time, an open-air event in New York’s Central Park with about 100,000 people in attendance. And what did those people see? Did they see something that lived up to the hype and the past expectations? Or did they witness a movie that collapsed under its own ambition and sullied the studio’s goodwill like so much Cars 2? Can you paint with all the colors of the wind? Does that even make sense? No it doesn’t. So dig some ship’s biscuits out of the barrel and let’s talk about Pocahontas.

Okay, let’s deal with the history first, because when this came out, I was annoyed by some executive’s claim on the aforementioned making-of special that anyone who complained about the historical accuracy was not a child at heart. I was a child heart and body, and I thought I had a right to be confused as to why someone would make a film based on historical events and ignore said events entirely. Of course, back then, I had only a surface knowledge of the history, and now I am older and wiser and have read several history books for fun. So how did it stack up? Well, as with our last why-did-they-adapt-this movie, The Jungle Book, let‘s do a quick rundown of the pertinent points to get it out of the way.

* Pocahontas in real life was 12 years old. She was not the chief’s only child but one  of about 200, and he didn’t appear to have any special affection for her mother, though Pocahontas did appear to be his favorite child.

* John Smith was not the captain of the ship they landed on, and was in fact brought ashore in chains, still serving a brig sentence for attempted mutiny. Also, he looked more like Zach Galafanakis than the movie implies.

And perhaps not coincidentally, also prone to hangovers.
* Smith and Pocahontas did not, obviously engage in any romantic relationship. It is also possible that her saving him from execution was part of a ritual, and he was in no real danger.

* More likely, though, he made the whole thing up, since he didn’t think to mention it until like 20 years later, and it was the third story he’d told about some locally prominent woman saving him from certain peril.

* John Ratcliffe was not an evil greedy tyrant, nor was he the first governor of the Jamestown colony. The first governor was rather petty and horrible, and Ratcliffe, who seems to have been fair and measured, replaced him after he was removed from office due to being an asshat. However, not much is known of the historical Ratcliffe, and Ratcliffe is a much better villain name than Edward Maria Wingfield.

* In fact, gold was pretty far down on the list of reasons the Virginia Company was settling the new world, but it’s probably tough to form a musical number around the cultivation of tobacco.

* Rather impressively, the flag used is accurate, as the Union Flag was designed the previous year and used only on boats at this time, and Disney remembered to leave off the St. Patrick’s Saltire, because the flag shan’t be having any scummy little Irishmen on it, thank you so much.

* Note: The author is of Irish descent, and the previous was meant to be not sincere, but bitter and sarcastic toward the English, as required by the Feckin’ Crown Act of 1917.

* The natives and settlers did not come to instant peace and love a few weeks after the settlers’ arrival. Kind of the opposite, actually.

* Virginia does not have nearly so many dramatic cliffs.

This is almost all from the first half of the movie, after which I got bored of screencapping. But it doesn't let up.

* And her name wasn’t Pocahontas, it was Matoaka. Pocahontas was a nickname.

So, as with the Jungle Book, we must ask why they decided to adapt this at all if the facts of history were going to be completely ignored, and we must also necessarily ask if it was worth it. The second answer, I’m afraid, is no. But they wanted it to be, and I’d actually say that yeah, the story they THOUGHT they were telling was worth the changes. Or at least, they needed to make them to tell the story. The far better option would have been to make a fictional settlement, a fictional tribe, and fictional people to tell their story, but they wanted history, and the Pocahontas story at least gives the basic frame. And the actual story of Pocahontas makes for a boring movie. It’s called The New World, it’s directed by Terrence Malick, and it’s dreadful, even if it is historically accurate.

Smith is still extremely handsome, though.

Sadly, it still wouldn’t have been a story worth telling. The writing is incredibly sloppy, with every single plot element telegraphed from a mile away. The people involved are less character than caricature, and while the animation is technically excellent, the character designs are stiff and lifeless. The idea of wacky sidekicks is progressing to full-blown addiction. Pocahontas doesn’t so much have sidekicks as an entourage, with a raccoon, a hummingbird, a sassy friend with fun kicky bangs, and a talking tree (and originally a turkey voiced by John Candy, who had his lines recorded when the character was cut prior to animation). The governor gets a sycophantic underling and a pampered lapdog. Smith gets a teenage apprentice to train and two older soldiers who’ve traveled with him before. Pocahontas’s dad gets the medicine man. And Pocahontas’s fiancée just sort of wanders around hoping some group will take him on.

There are some nice things I will say now. The actors are all quite good. With Irene Bedard and Russell Means as the lead Natives, as well as several supporting cast, Disney gets into a good habit of casting actors of the appropriate ethnicity for their characters. It’s not vital in animation, but it shows some dedication to doing it right. David Ogden Stiers pulls double duty as Governor Radcliffe and his assistant Wiggins. Christian Bale, fresh off Newsies, plays the junior member of Smith’s team, and Billy Connolly the oldest. I didn’t recognize the actor who played the third one, but the character was a burly man with a big bushy red beard, and wouldn’t you think that would be Billy Connolly? I dunno.

Speaking of Smith, Mel Gibson was the biggest surprise of the bunch. While his lightly graveled voice seemed a bit incongruous with the Ken Doll character design, he really took well to voice acting. Everything sounded natural and spontaneous, and he was able to work well with some really stupid lines. I admit I spent much of my first pass through the movie trying to work out what the hell his accent was doing, but on my second time, I just accepted it. Trying to get to the bottom of Mel’s accent in the 90s is a fool’s game. And he even did his own singing. It worked out much better for him when he didn’t have to try and belt or anything, but he was certainly passable.

That's great, guys, let's just dump it all over the deck. It's not like we're going to be on this boat for three months or anything.
Speaking of singing voices, this movie gives the best and the worst. Judy Kuhn sings for Pocahontas, and it’s actually pretty seamless. If I hadn’t read it, I’d assume there was no subbing in at all. On the opposite hand, both Powhatan and his medicine man have their singing dubbed by Who Else But Jim Cummings, and the voice he uses for them is functionally identical, while also sounding not much like either main actor. To make it even weirder, the chief has two spoken lines in his songs, and they’re done by Cummings, not Means.

There’s also a couple of scenes of Smith and Pocahontas talking about their respective cultures that won me over with their earnest simplicity and the strength of the actors. The writing’s as ham-fisted as the rest of the film, but those worked. I don’t know, maybe I’m just so starved for seeing the love interests have an actual conversation I’ll forgive anything.

But those are two bright moments in a sea of dull characters, clichéd moments, and predictable plotting. Get this - the princess wants something more! What is that? Well, she’s vague on the specifics. But her dad wants her to marry someone boring. So it’s Jasmine and the Sultan all over again, except he’s boring as hell. Fortunately, she’s got a talking tree to get advice from.

The fact that the Native Americans have legit magical powers in this movie is troublesome at best. I get the need from their storytelling perspective to have Pocahontas and Smith able to understand each other so they can have actual conversations instead of mumbling at each other in incomprehensible languages (see again The New World), but that could have been done with a light touch of magical realism. Instead, there’s a talking, moving tree that can also give visions. And it’s not just the tree. The medicine man is able to draw accurate and visible omens out of smoke, and there’s also some ghosts and stuff. And of course, it’s all on the Native side.

"Now do a bunny!"
The film has an irritating way of insisting that both sides are equally bad. Now, I’m not saying the Native side was blameless, and for all it’s magic, I do give the film credit for not depicting them as Perfect Paragons of Peace. But still, the scales of blame do tilt rather severely in the direction of “The guys who landed on this inhabited area and immediately started strongarming the inhabitants are the bad guys, okay.” In this film, the settlers have one bad leader, and once Christian Bale puts on his big boy pants and gives him what’s for, the colonists are at total peace with the Natives. Yeah, that’ll last.

So while the deviations from history may have been acceptable from a storytelling perspective, they are horrible from a historical perspective. And when you’re telling a story of this kind of history, that perspective needs to be more important, especially when the story you’re telling is so ungodly dull. Did that sound confusing? Good. Amplify your confusion and annoyance tenfold, and you’ve seen this movie. Join me next time when Disney follows up their inexplicable adaptation of reality with an equally inexplicable adaptation of fiction.


* In case you forgot such a time existed, this was back when people besides Jodie Foster liked Mel Gibson on a personal and professional level.

* Pocahontas is officially a “Disney Princess”, of course. Calling her a “princess” at all is stamping our Eurocentric views on a culture that doesn’t work in that idiom, but I’m numb to that by now.

* There’s a moose seen at one point in the movie. Moose? Isn’t Virginia a little far south for that?

* Three people get shot in this movie, and in all three cases, we see where they were shot quite clearly. No wounds, though. Not even a spot of blood on the shirt. It’s like everyone was shot in the soul or something.

Ratcliffe is the villain, so he has to make his own dramatic cliffs to stand on.
*There’s a scene where Smith is being held in a tent and Pocahontas asks the guards if she can see him, then she goes in and they sing a duet. I kept really wanting the scene to cut outside where the guards are awkwardly trying to ignore the blatant love song coming from the inside.

* While Disney ignored most of the suggestions made by Native groups, they did change some lyrics in the song “Savages”. Specifically the line “dirty redskin devils” become “dirty shrieking devils” to avoid the actual racial slur, and the probably-a-little-too-far “Their whole disgusting race is like a curse” became the probably-a-little-too-anachronistic “Here’s what you get when races are diverse”. The weirdest one was changing “Let’s go kill a few, men” to “Let’s go get a few, men”, because they don’t shy away from yelling about killing each other for the rest of the movie.

* Toward the end, Pocahontas gives some of Grandmother Willow’s bark to Smith to help with his pain. Willow bark is the root source of aspirin. Nice touch, movie.

* I think the dog and the raccoon got married at the end? I’m not sure what their deal was.

Hello Laverne, Shirley.
* Pocahontas's friend was probably my favorite character in the movie, and she's still too boring to write about. I just like the idea that she follows Pocahontas on all these shenanigans and gets into wacky mix-em-ups involving the wearing of funny hats, or sneaking out of the hut to go to the big dance at Massawomeck Prep.

* To give some perspective to the 100,000 people at the premiere, the Gershwin Theater, the largest theater on Broadway, holds about 2,000 people, the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, where the Oscars are held, holds 3,500, Radio City Music Hall holds 6,000, Madison Square Garden about 20,000, Yankee Stadium holds 50,000, and Giants Stadium 90,000. So… yeah. Holy cow. Not a record likely to be broken.

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