Saturday, March 9, 2024

Walt Disney, part XLVIII: At the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine


Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
Written by Carl Binder, Sussanah Grant, Philip LaZebnik, et al

Spoilers: N/A

As it was the work of hundreds over the course of a score of years, there is obviously no exact day that the Disney Renaissance began to end.  But I suppose if you had to pick one, March 28th, 1994, October 1st, 1994, or June 23rd, 1995 would be as good as any.  The first is the day after Disney's president Frank Wells died in a helicopter accident, which is almost how long it took for Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief of Disney's film production, to be the last to be told about it, and where it finally dawned on him that his long-cherished, always-unrealistic dream—of being promoted to the presidency of a company where his boss, the board of directors, most of his fellow executives, and a number of his subordinates hated him—would never be granted to him by Disney's CEO, once Katzenberg's friend, Michael Eisner; the second date is the day that Katzenberg left Disney, taking his apparent ability to shepherd good cartoons with him.  Walt Disney Feature Animation head Peter Schneider obviously deserves much credit, as well—and as for those aforementioned hundreds, the vast, vast majority of the it—but it says something that, given the enormous lead times in animation, the film oft-reckoned to close the Disney Renaissance, Tarzan, was also the last one Katzenberg had a hand in.  There was vengeance in Katzenberg's heart now, and he'd get it.

As that says, any fuller consideration of Katzenberg's achievements (and Katzenberg's follies) rightfully belongs more to the story of DreamWorks, not to the story of Disney.  That brings us to that last date, then, in the summer of 1995, the day that Pocahontas was released.  The film, in fact, did well, with a $346 million worldwide haul against a budget of $55 million, so by any metric "a success," and one that does not appear to have been expected to replicate the previous year's megahit, The Lion King, the sheer scale of that film's impact having taken everyone by surprise anyway.  That it performed substantially below Aladdin (and barely above Beauty and the Beast) must've undermined their confidence, though, even if Eisner put a happy (or disingenuous) face on things.  What actually hurt, I think, is that for the first time in a while, it was a Disney cartoon that didn't do that well critically.  And it had been expected to well critically; it might have existed more to do well critically than to make money.  Though Eisner always had doubts, Katzenberg and most of WDFA's staff were convinced that Pocahontas had a chance to succeed where even the Best Picture-nominated Beauty and the Beast had failed, or at least equal its unprecedented accomplishment of confirming the art of animation as something to take seriously enough to think about giving top-category Oscars to.  After all, what better way to do so, than with a socially-conscious stab at American mythology?  This absolutely failed to materialize: Pocahontas received Academy attention only in the manner that had become conventional for a cartoonnominations for Alan Menken's score and for Best Original Song, "Colors of the Wind," by Menken and his new lyricist Stephen Schwartz.  (The consolation is that Pocahontas at least won both.)  Strangely, a common refrain in its contemporary criticism was that Pocahontas wasn't bouncy and funny like Aladdin and The Lion King, which means that there was once a time when professional film critics actually demanded that Disney's non-human comic sidekicks talk, talk more, and get more screentime.  This has had nothing but good outcomes.

But maybe this was as much a recognition of the fundamental tension within Pocahontasa tension likewise perceived amongst its own makers, so that some of Eisner's last fights with Katzenberg were nominally about the latter ignoring the former's notes for more overt Disney-ness, though everyone appeared to have their own idea about the right balance to strike, so that you can't describe separate "factions."  The tension, of course, arose from the inevitably awkward fit between the thorny history surrounding Matoaka/Pocahontas/Rebecca Rolfe and the requirements of a Disney film to still be a fantasy cartoon for children.  So, for a seemingly innocuous example, guess how many of those names get used in Pocahontas's swift 81 minutes.  (It's "one," the nickname meaning "little brat.")  Yet leaving aside its narrowness of scope, verging on erasure, it's a movie sourced as much from the no-fucks-given historical romances that sprang up centuries after Pocahontas's death than it is even Capt. John Smith's own hyperbolic, likely-fictitious account of their friendship.  At least Smith, for all his own thorniness, never claimed to have had a romance with the twelve year old girl he knew.  I rather doubt his correspondent, Queen Anne, would've thought it was cool if he had.

Disney's movie does posit such a relationshipfor it is a Disney princess filmthough in case it needs to be spelled out, it ages her up, to seventeen or eighteen, and a case could be made for "thirty."  The movie posits that relationship because it started as a pitch by co-director Mike Gabriel, and the easiest way to pitch "Pocahontas" was as Colonial American Romeo and Juliet, which everyone involved probably already realized meant "Colonial American West Side Story."  ("Then why not John Rolfe, the man she married on behalf of peace for her people?"  Let us answer in three parts: Smith's account, properly reimagined, is inestimably more dramatic than "then Pocahontas got stared at by some white people and subsequently died"; as the preceding may have clarified, there's not as much possibility for Disney-style romance there; and despite its direct-to-video sequel actually continuing her story somewhat along the lines history set out, the makers of this particular Pocahontas strongly appear to have wanted her to never cross the Atlantic at all.)  And this is well and good, for history ought not be the shackles of art.

Yet by virtue of this legend's true basis, it was obliged to grapple with history nonethelessculture, colonialism, genocide, and, most perilously of all, the discussions informing contemporary as well as future politics around those thingsplus, occasionally, some measure of fidelity to the lives of the people it depicts, mostly to justify their characters' names, though there's a surprisingly and appealingly un-Disney melancholy maturity to the choices Pocahontas-the-movie-character is allowed to make, however counterfactual they are to Pocahontas-the-historical-person.  And it had to do all of this, while still being a rousing, pleasing Disney princess musical with animal friends and magic, because that's what Disney knew how to make.  It's aged like milk in the public mind ever since, and that renders it a fascinating object for historiographical study, too, since Pocahontas was built with the state-of-the-art in wokeness for 1995.  More importantly, it means it's one of those stressful reviews I get to write every so often, where I continue prefacing until anyone hostile will have gotten bored and left, because, personally, I've always liked Pocahontashell, we're going to find out I love Pocahontas.

So: in 1607, the British undertake to establish a colony in the tidewater region of the area of Tsenacommacah recently deemed "Virginia," under the governorship of John Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers, and while I won't do the thing where I point out every inaccuracy, if you'll allow me one, what we have here is more a composite of the worst traits of several other Jamestown leaders; the name was chosen, in High Disney fashion, because it sounds ugly, though even then, "De La Warr" sounds hideous, and I assume that wasn't chosen because it was simply too cartoonishly on-the-nose).  Also along is John Smith (world-famous cross-cultural mediator, Mel Gibson), a tested adventurer, who expects to find little to wonder at in this particular "New World."  But Smith is wrong, for it does impress him; meanwhile, his alienage, embodied in his handsome if unusual disposition, impresses Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), who spies him from afar, until allowing herself to be seen.  As the child of Wahunsenecawh (Russell Means), the chief-of-chiefs of Tsenacommacah, Pocahontas has been informally betrothed to her father's leading warrior, the dour Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall), and, despite her free spirit, she probably would have obeyed her father's wishes.  But now, here is John, eager (despite some missteps) to be taught the ways of this continent, and she would prefer him.

Unfortunately, John's fellows are here for gold and conquest, and frequently discuss the prospect of killing Indians for fun, and the Powhatans' attempts to enforce their border policy lead quickly to conflict and casualties.  Things get worse when Kocoum, for reasons apart from the defense of his people, gets himself killed in a precipitous attack on John, whereupon John is captured.  His execution imminent, Pocahontas seeks counsel from her magic tree (Linda Hunt), realizing that she alone can snatch peace from the jaws of war.  She doesiconically throwing herself between prostrate John and her father's killing blowand with this act of selfless love, she ensures the smooth integration of white settlers into sovereign indigenous territory such as marked our shared, largely-uneventful American history.  With both sides persuaded to non-violent cooperation, Ratcliffe is sent back to London in chains by his own men.  Sadly, John, thanks to a wound he sustained saving Wahunsenecawh in return, must also make the voyage back, requiring Pocahontas to make the painful decision to remain in her beloved homeland; as for Ratcliffe's fate, we can safely assume someone threw him overboard somewhere under the closing credits, since we're probably not meant to assume that John was hanged immediately after setting foot in Britain.  Still a trade up from real life for Luckless Ratcliffe.

It's difficult (and not very fun) to avoid being sarcastic when recapping Pocahontas, but this is basically alright.  Let's do the Discourse: the thing about Pocahontas's inspiration is that the Capulets and Montagues are both equally bad, and while this is, I'd aver, patently not something Pocahontas ever coherently argues, it gets close enough to raise some hackles, and for whatever reasonthey're foundationally important to generations of children, or they're big targets and you can garner attention by criticizing themDisney films can't just be films, they're Culture War battlegrounds.  Much of that discourse around Pocahontas seems to be based, then, on the idea that it's intended as some heavily-revised victor's history meant to brainwash pioneer children, rather than a history-inflected fiction made for the perceived needs of the year in which it was actually released, 1995, with a moral message for the people of that era, and not "history," as such.  (It's a moderate liberal message you can criticize on its own merits, but you should probably get the message right.)  I hate to be this brusque about it, but the only possible moral of the events of 1607-1614 is that "giving any respite to starving immigrants might sound like a nice idea, but it isn't, they will only increase their numbers and bring ever more violence and disease."  The moral of 1622, meanwhile, is "don't stop any massacre halfway through."  These are not, actually, good morals for 1995.  And, ultimately, to consider Pocahontas as "history" is to adopt a concept of movie audiences as so contemptibly unsophisticated that you'd have to consider them, as the saying goes, barely even human; if you believe that folks truly do learn their history and morality from cartoons, then I don't know how you don't follow that line of thought to its logical conclusion, and start wondering if democracy was such a good idea.

It is, however, absolutely imperfect, in blatantly insensitive ways, but ways that were, in 1995, presumably intended to be generous.  In specific terms, I am thinking most of its eyebrow-raising 1990s insistence upon the Native American as a mystical figure, in many respects better than the white (so far as the liberal, ecologically-conscious white had decided, anyway), one indifferent to capital accumulation, in better touch with nature, and ready to be commodified for recycling ads.  The connection to nature, anyway, is saliently demonstrated by Pocahontas and her... aforementioned magic tree.  ("Grandmother Willow," that is, which is also the main point where Pocahontas's overreach with computers becomes known, with a character who, in her horrifyingly hollow black eyes and uncanny drawn-over early CGI construction, isn't really quite fit to the purpose of being just a sassy, horny old lady who happens to be a tree, rather than something a little more eldritch and frightening.)  There is, of course, also the matter of Pocahontas's animal sidekicks, Meeko the racoon (noises by John Kassir) and Flit the hummingbird (noises by Frank Welker)these sidekicks are at least not verbalwhich fits in readily with the long and august Disney princess tradition of magically communing with nature, and fits in problematically with the long, less-august Anglo-American tradition of Native exoticization, particularly when we recall that that first tradition had been laid by the wayside back in 1959 with Sleeping Beauty.  (Ariel's sidekicks sort of count, sort of don't.)  But then this forgets a resurrection of that tradition, through an unlikely male commoner, back in The Rescuers Down Under, a film likewise co-directed by, how about that, Mike Gabriel; on the other hand, Cody was supposed to be an Aborigine.  But there we are: with Katzenberg's bloodless market-based decision to make Cody a white Australian, he inflicted upon The Rescuers Down Under the kind of invisible racism more poisonous than anything in Pocahontas.  But, all that said, Pocahontas's white writers probably could have tried harder to give the Powhatan priest (Gordon Tootoosis) something more properly rueful to say when he describes white people's "strange bodies that shine in the sun," which is some of the most flattering bigotry I've ever heard.

It others Native Americans considerably, without doubt.  Of course, when it doesn't other Native Americans, but individuates them, or offers complexity to its depiction, that's apparently bad too: Kocoum's derailment of his chief's strategy on behalf of his perceived cuckoldry is more thematically ambitious than anything else in the movie; and, especially, there's "Savages," the two-part climactic musical number, which pits the Powhatans and British against one another as dueling choruses, describing each other as heathens and demons and, indeed, savages, with Menken and Schwartz clearly relishing the irony, while seeking to sensationally dramatize the manner in which dehumanization and violence go hand-in-hand, even when war be justified, as I can agree is the case for the Powhatan attacks in this film, as it waswith the necessary caveatsin history.  (For a recent parallel, of course it's not good when Ukrainians describe Russians as "orcs," even if it is good, in the context of their present war, when Ukrainian soldiers inflict casualties upon Russian ones.)  This song draws inordinate heat; the phrase "false equivalence" comes up a lot, because an amazing number of people in our society can check the box "some college."  But considering that the British are presented here, as everywhere else throughout the movie, as rapacious invaders, my personal theory is that it's disproportionately hurt Pocahontas's reputation for "Savages" to be both its best song by far and its best sequence as a work of animation, thereby drawing so much attention itself.

So now we can talk about this cartoon, though, even leaving aside "how racist is it, 90% or 100%?", which was only enjoyable to write when I got to meander off into talking about CGI, it has very clear weaknesses.  I have implied it's good-not-great as a musical, and that's the case; it has one other banger-level song, "Colors of the Wind," which has the unenviable double-duty of establishing John and Pocahontas's romance as well as distilling the film's most presentist themes, so that John falls in love, effectively, with a lecture about environmental stewardship.  It dovetails this better than that sounds, benefiting from Judy Kuhn's strong singing for Pocahontas (it also provides one cool couples activity, in American eagle falconry), and it has at least one dynamite, novel piece of only-in-CAPS animation, an over-too-soon gesture from Pocahontas's supervising animator, Glen Keane, that renders her in mystical, computer-recolored charcoals.  (It certainly benefits from Gibson having no part in it, as we've already realized he's a lousy singer; it's something that would have been drilled into your brain through your ears if they'd kept "If I Never Knew You," a hypothetically-tearjerking number for mostly-Gibson intended for the night before John's scheduled execution; there should be something there, but what they had wasn't it and they knew it.)

I have shifted somewhat on "Steady As a Beating Drum," the Powhatans' song about squashes and other concerns, which attempts Native American percussive music and probably doesn't help Pocahontas feel like it's not exoticizing them, but has kind of earwormed for me regardless, possibly because it's still good and possibly because Menken uses it in his score fifty times.  (Going by the other cut songs, Menken would've liked his entire movie to be set to it.)

Pocahontas herself gets her "I want" song, "Just Around the Riverbend," which flirts with being outright bad, more thanks to Schwartz's lyrics (a "too damn many of them" problem), though even Menken's music isn't doing much here; it survives anyway by recourse to some dramatic riverine staging, and some of the most beautiful water animation in a movie that I could be moved to claim boasts the most beautiful hand-drawn water animation in any Disney cartoon.  (To the extent that the opening action scene, on the storm-tossed seas, could make you ask, "Do we even need the problematic tolerance parable when we've got danger on a tall ship?")  I'm a small fan of "Mine, Mine, Mine," Ratcliffe's villain number, though only once it builds to its chorus-and-editing-driven crescendo; it's far enough from the best of its type that until I rewatched Pocahontas, a film I've seen five or six times, I'd forgotten it had a villain song.  And there's the self-describing "Listen To Your Heart," sharing textures with "Drum," and it's fine though at this point it's well to frankly admit I forget that Pocahontas has so many songs in general, even right after I just watched it.  I will attend to "Savages" below, but what it should draw heat for is the thudding didacticism of its study of dehumanization: "they're not like you and me!/which means they must be EE-vil!" is more akin to so-bad-it's-good; I'm not backing off my "best song" position, nor my evaluation of the sequence to which "Savages" belongs, but I've never not laughed out loud at that.

However, you'll have noticed that studded throughout the above is a certain uniformity of praise for how Pocahontas looks.  That doesn't obscure its weaknesses, but it does make them forgivable, even if I'm not done listing them: I think the very big one is that Pocahontas, like The Lion King before it, has retreated considerably from the complexity of characterization in The Little Mermaid or Aladdinand since it's rare for anyone to describe Aladdin's characterization as "complex," note that even Pocahontas's "inner" conflict is external.  This isn't that big of a problem in itself81 minute musical romances can do just fine with one-note elemental characterization, and it's no more profound a sin than Sleeping Beauty's own fiat romance (even if her "I want [specifically, a man]" song does romance better)but it's putting an enormous, dangerous amount of weight on basically just the fact that John can smile at this New World's majesty, whereas Kocoum smiles at nothing.  Frankly, there's not enough Pocahontas-and-John here, no moment where she could become something more than an emblem of frontierland adventure for him; with the utmost charity, she's the lithe and agile counterpart he could never have found in Britain, but I know this mainly because of a deleted story reel that's told me so, via the oblique means of a funny bit where Pocahontas dresses in a mockery of London gentility at John's prompting"a funny bit between the two leads" even explains how it got cut, when the watchword for this relationship was "solemnity"and so it's frustrating, because this not-even-a-minute-long, not-especially-taxing-to-animate scene would've paid off so handsomely.  (Nothing here is helped by Gibson, I should say, who approaches "fine" in his speaking role, but there's the persistent sense that he is legitimately baffled by voice acting as a distinct craft; Bedard, thankfully, is better.)

A smaller problem, too, is that Ratcliffe is B-tier.  The genocidal colonialist is too much real evil to be "Disney villain" fun, and not all the efforts in that direction are successful, though he could've been worse, and almost was; originally conceived as a full-on revival of old-school Disney sloppy villainy, supervising animator Richard Hoppe splits the difference, and it's reasonably effective, with a giant, disorientingly top-heavy figure, fat and fey but powerful, whose incompetent flailing is comic, but dangerous, all of which I suppose fits a colonialist well.  (It would probably be incorrect to credit Hoppe specifically for my favorite piece of animation on Ratcliffe, though, another CAPS-makes-everything-easier moment as his lily-white face so imperceptibly reddens in fury at John, until you suddenly notice he's become a blazing hot pink.)  And, of course, the explicit point of the movie is to avoid an action climax.

Where Pocahontas makes up all this ground and more is craft.  But it's a very distinct approach to the craft than you'd expect from any Disney Renaissance film: Ratcliffe's original sloppiness, and the sloppiness that remains, point us in the right direction; whereas my repeated references to Sleeping Beauty are not accidental.  There is not a Disney film of the 90smaybe ever, excluding The Princess and the Frog, in 2009, wherein they had the advantage of returning to a whole abandoned mediumthat more openly desires to be an aesthetic throwback, Pocahontas's specific target being Disney's Silver Age in the 1950s.  Gabriel's pitch used an image of Tiger Lily as a visual aid; the idea may have germinated fully during Gabriel and co-director Eric Goldberg's research into Disney's unproduced late 40s feature, Hiawatha.

Whatever the case, there's much of the feel of a Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty to this (and Peter Pan, though more its Hook than its Indians).  It's wonderfully done and I respond to it easily, Sleeping Beauty being especially influential, thanks to its alignment with Gabriel's pre-existing interest in soaring epic landscapes, presently fulfilled to astounding effect by Pocahontas's art director, Michael Giaimo.  Pocahontas's backdrops are an incredible thing to behold, getting across the natural majesty the whole film revolves around, and I only hold back from saying they're the loveliest of the whole Disney Renaissance because they're a little unvaried (the entire film takes place on basically one seemingly two-mile stretch of land, barely more sprawling than Friz Freleng's somewhat conceptually-similar "Bunker Hill Bunny"), and because Aladdin makes its own case, and Tarzan will soon kick our eyes' asses into the future.  But there is a realist-downshifted Eyvind Earle here, with Giaimo's emphasis on the vertical lines of this primordial forest (which, because this is still a CAPS film made in 1995, frequently lends a hushed and holy subdued quality to the lighting), as well as all those geographically-spurious rock formations likelier to be found a good two hundred miles inland (though "primordial forest" might be as much of an invention, given the Powhatans' actual "connection to land" was to dominate it).  I'll repeat an assertion I made ages ago: Disney was always good with North American forests, and Pocahontas upholds tradition.

We could just as easily, though, point to Meeko and Flit (plus Ratcliffe's pug, Percy, his effete woofs provided by Danny Mann), and the most racist thing in Pocahontas is the explicit parallelism of colonial violence and a cartoon racoon fighting a cartoon dog, so I suppose let's not dismiss that "false equivalence" thing completely out of hand.  Now, I don't wish to discount Goldberg's contributions, but Pocahontas seems to be more Gabriel's movie (there's indication, though I can't confirm it, that Goldberg got so exhausted with the rock-and-a-hard-place production he surreptitiously took on jobs outside Disney to relax).  Part of that is that it's so gosh-darned humorless, like a regular Kocoum.  The animals address this somewhat, and given the frequency of reaction shots on the racoon that manage a resemblance to Genie's, I'm willing to say this is where Goldberg's energies found the most use.  They're kind of shockingly effective, and in no other case do the strictures of being a prestige film benefit Pocahontas more than with Meeko, Flit, and Percy, all rendered pantomime figures, and even then, still channeled through comedy stylings that are so surprisingly gentle, practically missing the 50s altogether and finding their inspiration in the late 30s, where half the point was good-natured japery and the other half was prototyping realistic animal animation, though Meeko's surely no "prototype."  Despite the Genie-like bits, there's almost no post-Aladdin anachronismso being self-serious really does have its upsides.  It's present only in a few jokes with Ratcliffe's manservant Wiggins (also Stiers), which are at least so sourly ironic about colonialism as to be worthwhile.

Maybe most forcefully of all, we have the actual character animation, which is simultaneously like little Disney has ever done in its sharped-edged angularity, and still a cousin to the life-referenced animation of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and Keane, John Pomeroy (supervising John, having escaped Don Bluth), and Michael Cedeno (supervising Kocoum) are insistent that you notice that life-reference in a way that is almost exclusively a feature of the Silver Age's two great successes and is completely apart from anything else at Disney in the 90s (or ever again)even though the muscular physicality of their characters isn't really like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty either.  This utterly unique quality attends all the characters, in fact (except Ratcliffe and Wiggins), but especially the ones belonging to those three animators.  They wind up seeing the most action, and, accordingly, it's through them that we're invited to feel the weight and force of their bodies, individually as well as upon each other.  The face of Keane's Pocahontas was built in ways I sort of don't agree witha Perfect Woman melange sourced from a dozen inspirations, a couple of whom were even Native Americanbut I cannot fault the execution of these bodies or their movement.  Even as the combination of realism and idealism in the designs imposes limits on the expressivity we expect from Disney animation, their curious mix of tangibility and towering inconicism is perfect for the goals of this film.

But at no point is it forgotten that this is a 1995 cartoon, with the technology of its age, and layout artist Rasoul Azadani (rapidly making himself plain as one of the unsung heroes of the Disney Renaissance) spans the divide between its classicist inspiration and modern construction, with CAPS "camera" movements that exploit that technology more fully than it ever had beforesome awfully striking and narratively-useful swoops into the depths of the frame, just for starterswithout betraying the stateliness that is Pocahontas's principal operating mode.  The effects animation follows suit, with a delightful mix of old and new: the opening ocean storm is a nice example, within three seconds of one another indulging in lighting effects through grates that would be all-but-impossible prior to CAPS yet rendering lightning flashes with a merely-easier-in-CAPS equivalent of an old-fashioned matte; and I've already mentioned the ravishing water animation.  The "mists of history" that settle over half the film, meanwhile, and which are deployed to absolutely perfect effect in the tense initial confrontation between Pocahontas and John, are all modernbut that scene is also a terrific example of Keane and Pomeroy's work together, the silent strategems of their characters made subtle and rewardingly ambiguous, and likewise feeling of another, more patient era.

But nowhere is the gulf bridged more intoxicatingly than in "Savages," which is somewhat just a special case of Giaimo's intermittently-expressionistic color style throughout.  But what a special case: now he's blasting you with completely non-realist solid colorits only nod to realism is the colors that look like people get a differently-colored chiaroscuro outline, affording them some dimensionality, sometimesthereby coding our two adversaries as forces in mutual annihilation, most eye-searingly in the somehow-correct deployment of foreground blues and background oranges for the Powhatans, not a combination often-observed for obvious reasons, but terribly memorable.  This digital color and intentional flatness is a thing, completely, of 1995.  Yet the more concretely symbolic gestures here could be straight out of something of Fantasia's vintage: the most sublime belongs to Joe Grantfittingly, since he helped kick off Pocahontas with Gabriel, but even more fittingly because Grant was one of the last links to Disney's Golden and Silver Ages still at WDFAand Grant renders this struggle a cosmic one capable of conjuring red-and-blue storm clouds, and casting the shadows of war upon that newly-fearsome sky.

For all this, I think it's a shame that Pocahontas has basically been consigned to ignominy; it's clumsy, but not so outrageously bad, in the ways it's bad, that it cannot be enjoyed with the appropriate attitude ("this is some wacky white nonsense," if you must).  Nor is it fairly dismissed in a world where you can readily find many insisting that, say, Stagecoach or The Searchers still need to be studied, or that The New World is great.  (Though these things are true.)  It's also kind of dizzying that this one, downright engineered to satisfy all stakeholders, wound up the offensive one, when Disney's other turn-of-the-millennium foray into indigene depiction, the "we're so completely indifferent to Quechua culture we named him 'Cuzco'" Emperor's New Groove, is not.  In the narrow but notable ways it's great, anyway, it's a masterpiece.  Of course, the atmosphere of disappointment around it also killed the Disney princess musical, ended Gabriel and Goldberg's feature directorial careers, and began the process of dismantling the Disney Renaissance; so it has those strikes against it.

Score: 9/10


  1. I don’t hate POCAHONTAS myself - having been introduced to it at an early age, I tend to think of it as middling rather than actively bad (Though I do have a soft spot for that opening drum roll and the ensuing “We’re off for a cruise and God help anyone gets in our way” musical number, being a Briton myself, and enjoy ‘Steady as the beating drum’ too, though ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’ is probably my favourite song on a level of pure entertainment).

    One must admit that seeing the name HIAWATHA mentioned for a possible Disney feature - presumably based on ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ makes me suspect that would be an inherently stronger hook for Socially Conscious Disney, since it would allow the company to politely side-step First Nations/European-American Troubles while still working with themes of conflict resolution and the birth of a new world.

    On the other hand it occurs to me that a Disney LAST OF THE MOHICANS is easier to imagine and would be an absolutely golden opportunity to finally get poor, neglected David Gamut the Big Screen Musical Number he deserves.

    1. Last of the Mohicans would be a pretty terrific idea, but standing in the shadow of Michael Mann's, which does much of what I imagine a Disney version would do already except bloodier (but also including, like, "painterly epic backgrounds") already.

      The storyboards I saw for Hiawatha made it seem pretty cool. Anything is cooler than the extant Disney cartoon, "Little Hiawatha," which is quite tedious. Buttocks, yes, I get it. I also assume Hiawatha would've been cooler than Brother Bear.