Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Indian Giver

In honor of Thanksgiving, we give thanks today for the lustrous hair, the slender physique, the full lips and the tremendous singing voice of that Native American heroine Pocahontas.

The subject of one of Disney’s more controversial and underappreciated animated films, Pocahontas is one of the surprisingly rare number of “princesses” who didn’t have to marry someone to become one, her being the daughter of a Powhatan chief to begin with.

In this era when there’s always something to offend someone, with people waiting just around the river bend at any second to jump on even the most absurd slights, Disney’s rendition of the girl brought screams of protest over her too Barbie-like figure and her lack of authenticity. (Because, as we all know, animated musicals are always steeped in kitchen sink verisimilitude and no Hollywood product has ever enhanced a historical figure by presenting that person in a more flattering physical light than they themselves had, right?)

There were also those who criticized the adult nature of the movie as it contained a love story between Poca and Captain John Smith. Not a tremendous amount is known about the real life relationship between the two, but surely critics of the more adult looking Poca would not have wanted her to be drawn as a true 11 year-old and then have her involved with an adult male! Anyway, the film is based less on fact (do ya think?) than on previously established legends about the pair. If you’ve ever heard the classic song Fever or seen the 1953 film Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, then you know that rumblings of a romance between these two didn’t begin in 1995 with this movie.

Those who struggled with the liberties taken with the facts and who seemingly wanted a documentary-like approach to the tale, missed out on one of Disney’s all-time most beautiful films. With leaves blowing constantly and Poca’s hair billowing around her, the screen seems in constant motion, but not in a negative way. The colors, the music and the ingratiating characters combine to provide a lovely viewing experience.

Additionally, the film encourages not only a respect for the land and the ecology of the planet, but also stresses the need for racial harmony. Not only that, but Pocahontas also presents a feminist, empowering point of view, refusing to blithely give in to the male-dominated dictates of her environment and struggling to see that things are made right, regardless of the risk or cost.

Though the movie includes the supernatural element of Grandmother Willow, a speaking tree filled with advice, the now-standard animal sidekicks do not talk. Meeko the raccoon and Flit the hummingbird, pals of Pocahontas and Percy the pug, the prized pooch belonging to the villainous Governor Ratcliffe, demonstrate their character through movement and animal-like sounds.

Percy, by the way, marked the first time in my life that I ever could fully relate to a character on screen. Fussy, pouty, snooty, finicky and always above-it-all, he sports a near constant sneer, loves to eat, revels in luxurious baths, prefers not to get dirty and does NOT like to have his hair messed up! Eventually, he loosens up and joins in the fun as I often find myself doing after initial reluctance, but it truly was a revelation to me to see myself represented in a cinematic character!

Pocahontas’ speaking voice came courtesy of an Eskimo actress named Irene Bedard. Her singing voice was provided by Broadway talent Judy Kuhn (who was in her mid-to-late 30s at the time!) The voice of Captain Smith came from quite an unlikely source and it is one that belongs to an outcast of The Underworld, a man who was cast out even before his headline-grabbing, hate-filled, drunken episode and whose body of work in live-action films is almost universally boycotted by Poseidon.

The splendid music is the work of Broadway composers Howard Menken and Stephen Schwartz (Mr. Schwartz being one of the handful of celebrities who Poseidon has met in person.) Sadly, a truly lovely duet between the lead couple (sung while Smith is being held captive and Pocahontas comes to visit him) called If I Never Knew You was excised from the film in its first release. A pop version was always included on the soundtrack album, but the narrative version has since been restored to the anniversary DVD in augmented form.

My affection for this film came as a surprise to me because I have never really been one to take up causes, such as the treatment of Native Americans or even environmental ones, and am only a moderate fan of animation (and, in fact, have no great love for the mammoth Disney machine and all its endless product.) Maybe it was the touching simplicity of the tribe as they opened the film with a harvest. Perhaps it was the fact that Pocahontas can sing underwater, something even I have never been able to effectively accomplish. Could it be the Vanessa Williams video for Colors of the Wind that featured her crooning away while breezes caused the material of her ensemble to waft (a documented obsession of mine)?

All I know is that I instantly loved the film and was saddened to see it maligned by a fair number of people (though it was a success at the box office.) Apart from a major blitz when the film was released, for years, Poca’s likeness was either eliminated or underemphasized in all the never-ending Disney merchandising. In recent years, this has been remedied to an extent. This could be due to a renewed appreciation for the movie or maybe because so many of the subsequent films from the studio have been rancid, contrived, un-enjoyable pieces of junk!

In any case, taken without any preconceived notions and without the expectation of reality, you may find yourself being captivated and maybe even touched by this film should you give it a try.

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