30 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: COME ROLL IN ALL THE RICHES ALL AROUND YOU

As hard as it is to fathom in retrospect, of the two Disney features put into development late in 1990, The Lion King was seen by most everybody at the studio as the runner-up, the less-prestigious, more kiddie-friendly picture; the one that you got stuck working on if you couldn't nab a job over at the "real" picture, the super-prestigious Pocahontas. Now, that was the film to be a part of! It was by far the most serious and important movie in the history of Disney Feature Animation: based upon a real even in history, attempting to redress the wrongs of generations of Hollywood films in their portrayal of Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages (it is likely no accident that Pocahontas was greenlit around the time that the equally serious & self-consciously politically correct Dances with Wolves was released). Emboldened by the critical success of Beauty and the Beast, Disney CEO Michael Eisner would even predict, before the film's completion or release, that Pocahontas would be the second animated nominee for the Best Picture Oscar, for it was clearly a more serious and significant movie than some old fairy tale love story. It was Historic! and of Nobly-Intentioned Politics! Doubtlessly, critics and audiences would respond to it like no other Disney feature before.

As my ironic exclamation points have probably suggested, things didn't work out exactly that nicely. Part of this is simply because The Lion King ended up grossing a jaw-dropping, record-setting $312 million, and everybody's expectations for Pocahontas dropped a little bit; upon its release, it received modestly favorable reviews, and grossed a perfectly satisfying and profitable $141 million - just slightly shy of Beauty and the Beast, three-and-a-half years earlier - to become the fourth-highest grossing film of 1995. Time has not been at all kind to it, however, and nowadays it seems to be the film of the Disney Renaissance likeliest to elicit a shudder of dismay from all but the most maniacal Disney buffs. There are two competing theories for what happened in 1995 that led to its success relative to its subsequent burial: one is that The Lion King was so successful that nobody really expected anything of Pocahontas, and so it received initially more love than it ultimately deserved (the theory of the people who shudder in dismay); the other is that The Lion King was so successful that people flocked to Pocahontas expecting it to be just as good, and started to lash out against it when it turned out to be even slightly less of an achievement, so that even now, a decade and a half later, it still suffers under the comparison for no better reason than being not as good as The Lion King (the theory of the maniacs).

For myself, I fit into the heavily marginalised third category that was so relieved in 1995 that Pocahontas wasn't as unpleasant to sit through as its heavily-praised predecessor that I was able, at the time, to convince myself that it was quite a fine little movie. I was 13 then, though, and did not know very much about cinema (also, in retrospect, I was exactly the wrong age to still be watching Disney pictures, but I do not and have never claimed that I was a normal adolescent). Now, of course, I have joined those who shudder with dismay, because to every objective measure, Pocahontas is a singularly problematic film; though handsomely animated - as every Disney film was in this period - it has story issues built into its very concept that not other Disney feature ever had to contend with, and virtually without exception, it fails to address those issues properly.

Telling the story of the love affair between English settler John Smith and the Powhatan Indian princess Pocahontas in 1607, and see, that's how long it took us to hit the problematic stuff. As anyone who took high school American history can tell you, Pocahontas was somewhere around 12 years old at the time she famously saved Smith's from being executed by her father - an event that very likely didn't occur anywhere but in Smith's overheated, sensationally narrative re-imagining of the early history of the Jamestown settlement. Let us not blame Disney too harshly for this wanton re-appropriation of history, though; romantic versions of the Pocahontas/Smith story had appeared for some two-hundred years before their film. All the same, there's historical romanticism and then there's historical romanticism. And given that Pocahontas is still ultimately a story for children, it could do with a bit more of an attempt to contextualise its historical inventions as just that, invention, instead of presenting what otherwise looks for all the world like a fact-based account of things. Not that it is: in fact, while the addition of a love story is easily the most immediately recognisable bit of fabrication in the plot, it might not even been the most damnable. After all, sexing up history is a privilege of dramatists since before there was an English language, and continues into the modern day. But Pocahontas badly mangles the details of the Jamestown colony and the relationship between the white colonists and the natives, and it this that I think to be the true crime against history: because you simply don't expect those kinds of changes to be made so readily. Some of these can be waved away as demanded by the need for compression; but some, like the wholly unfounded treatment of colony president John Ratcliffe as a sneering villain, don't sit as well (incidentally Ratcliffe died in a pitched battle with a Powhatan war tribe in 1609, and was not at all sent to England to be tried for crimes which, even in the film's narrative universe, don't actually seem to be illegal).

But anyway, the film opens in 1607, with the departure of an expedition that actually left in 1606, taking a number of settlers to establish a colony on the North American continent, with the purpose of finding gigantic sums of gold to bring back to England (this was only a half-goal of the historic London Company, later Virginia Company; the establishment of a permanent English presence in the New World for the sake of further exploration and conquest was very nearly as important. But I am going to stop bringing up trivial historical inaccuracies now). Among these men is the great Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson), a noted adventurer and scoundrel, whose presence is a delight and comfort to all the crew. One very arduous journey across the Atlantic later, the decimated company makes landfall on the rugged cliff-lined shores of Virginia (can I have just one more trivial inaccuracy, please?), with Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) establishing a settlement named Jamestown in honor of King James (named "King James the First" in dialogue, which he would not be called until after the existence of a King James II, OKAY I SAID I'D STOP I'M STOPPING NOW).

Cut to: the Powhatan capital, where Chief Powhatan (Russell Means) has just led a successful war party to utterly destroy their worst enemies. He wishes to celebrate with all his people, except that one particular person is missing: his willful daughter Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), who would much rather play out in the wild with her animal friends, a raccoon named Meeko (who does not speak, but his chirrups and squeaks are vocalised by Jon Kassir) and a hummingbird named Flit (Frank Welker).

It is thus immediately clear that Pocahontas is derived from a very particular tradition: she's not just a Disney princess, she's a very particular kind of Disney princess who is noted especially for her uncommon rapport with little woodland creatures. This is something that is customarily noted in the skill set of all Disney princesses and thus unworthy of notice, you might think - but 'tis not so. The heroines of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty all have this skill, but Ariel of The Little Mermaid and Belle of Beauty and the Beast absolutely do not: Ariel is a sea creature communicating with other sea creatures, subjects in her father's kingdom, while Belle (who, like Cinderella, is not actually a princess) never even tries to speak to woodland creatures. In Aladdin, both Aladdin and Jasmine (both of them fulfilling a part of the princess paradigm) speak with their companion animals, but this is much more like having a pet than having some kind of natural affinity with all the animal kingdom. So when Pocahontas goes about the Virginia woods palling around with critters, she is representing a tradition of representation that, notwithstanding its importance to the Disney cliché (even Disney knows this: cf. Enchanted) had been dormant for over 40 years.

Of course, as will become sickeningly apparent in very short order, Pocahontas's unusual affinity with forest animals isn't just her function as a sickly-cute Disney princess: it's because she's a Native American, and Native Americans as you obviously know have a much deeper, more spiritual connection to the Earth and Her creatures than *sniff* white people. Which, sure, as a sufficiently liberal white person, I think that's a pretty fair cop. It is the very central matter in things like e.g. Plains Indians hunting bison for food and clothing and treating it as a very serious matter in which they owed a debt of gratitude to the animals' spirits for dying for the hunters' sake, versus white settlers slaughtering bison by the hundreds because it is an efficient way to starve out the Plains Indians. But to say that "significantly greater appreciation and respect for the natural world and its inhabitants" implies that the Powhatans are capable of, just to pluck out the obvious example, casting magical spells, that is where you have lost me, Pocahontas.

The double-edged sword of political correctness - a phrase I do not like to use, except when it seems obvious that the people in charge of the movie seemed to be using it themselves - is that you can easily go too far in the wrong direction. All Indians are murderous half-animal savages is a bad representation. The solution to that is to treat an entire native population the same way you'd show anyone else: individual personalities, some nobler than others, some more wicked. It is not to go all the way to the other direction and present every last Native American as some kind of awe-inspiring saint whose wisdom and preternatural goodness can hardly be understood by slavering, materialist honkies. It's still turning them into an Other; a "good" Other, maybe, but that's hardly as good as making them no Other at all. This is not a problem unique to Disney; if I remember rightly, Dances with Wolves suffers from it as well, along with plenty of other films.

In a film like Pocahontas, this isn't just obnoxious because it deprives a whole civilization of its humanity, although that's the worst part of it: it also leads to tiresome, thump-you-on-the-head message movie moralizing, and boy howdy, Pocahontas is full of that. It is akin to the ten-years-later Crash, a film so horribly devoted to its theme that there seems to be little other plot than what will go into furthering that theme, and no characterisations that are not ultimately related to how the individual character feels about people of other races.

And so it is that Pocahontas, conceived as a great post-Beauty and the Beast love story, is no great love story at all; for when the two lovers must fit into the machinations of a heavily deterministic plot, it is hard to think of them as particular individuals, nor to engage with the depth of their emotions, which hardly seem to exist anyway. I would be remiss in not pointing out that in at least one respect, Pocahontas is one of the most interesting Disney heroines: she begins the movie by disrespecting her father's wishes to marry and have children, and ends it by deciding that there are more important things than having a man by whom to define herself; and for both of these reasons the film praises her. Making her, at least arguably, the most successfully feminist woman in any Disney film to that point, although this it not, for 1995, a full-throated roar of feminism.

The only characters that work at all are the three comic animals, which is a weird thing given how frequently the comic sidekicks are the worst element of any given Disney feature; or at least, not at all the best part. Meeko, Flit, and Ratcliffe's dog Percy (Danny Mann) are three very well-defined personalities, whose slapstick gags (just about the only funny moments in this deeply serious movie) are actually sometimes pretty funny, and who always seem like the animals that they are, and never like little silent people in fuzzy suits. All three are exceptional examples of character animation, precisely because they are pantomime clowns; particularly Meeko, led by supervising animator Nik Ranieri (who had previously demonstrated his character-defining skills with Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast), who has quite an extensive range of expressions for an animal that never once ceases to look like a raccon.

Indeed, the animation in Pocahontas is just as good as you'd expect from a studio in Disney's position in the early '90s; but not a trace as hypnotically beautiful as The Lion King, nor perhaps even as well-done as Aladdin. What one notices first is that the film has a very different stylistic mentality than the earlier films in the Renaissance: other than the animals and certain of the more funny humans, the character design is tremendously realistic, to the point where it's so realistic that it seems stylised again. Indeed, my first inclination was to compare the characters to those in Sleeping Beauty, by far the most stylised Disney feature up to this point.

This stylisation doesn't always suit the movie, particular in the case of John Smith, who ends up looking like a Ken doll more than anything else. For this I do not blame the animation team, for they were stuck with a hyper-realist mission statement that left them unable to do any of the slight exaggerations of gesture that animation does best. You can almost see the animators struggling to find anything to do with him, and I must credit the wasted attempts of supervisor John Pomeroy to do something with an unworkable character... waitaminnit, John Pomeroy? Don Bluth's right hand man, who left Disney in an angry storm in 1979? My God, Pocahontas must have been a big old prestigious deal if Disney and Pomeroy were able to patch things up!

The real triumph of character animation, after the three animals, is Pocahontas herself, lead by Glen Keane (one of the few big names at Disney to do no work at all for The Lion King); she is one of the great examples of realistic human animation to come out of the Renaissance, along with Belle, and her own range of facial expressions is more than a credit to Keane, who had already started to prove with Aladdin and the Beast that he was just as good a facial actor as he was at creating massive, weight creatures. It is worth mentioning that Mark Henn, having finished up his work supervising young Simba, took a demotion to work as a mere character animator for Pocahontas; that is how much more exciting this project was at the studio.

As for the backgrounds, they are beautiful but not especially precise; most Disney films have a particular guiding aesthetic behind everything, but there doesn't even seem to be a particular style of landscape painting that guides the overall look of Pocahontas. Still, what it lacks in a coherent vision, it makes up for with ambition: it uses CAPS with abandon, creating the most elaborate faux-multiplane shots used in that technology's history up to that point, and incorporating far more obvious CGI elements than The Lion King did, and when I say "obvious", I really do mean it: this film is undoubtedly a step back from the previous one, not just because the CGI looks like CGI, but also because there are fewer hugely ambitious lighting effects and transparency effects. Not to say that it lacks them altogether; but if you looked at Pocahontas and The Lion King side-by-side - or even Pocahontas and Aladdin - without knowing better, I suspect you would select Pocahontas as the less-advanced use of the technology.

As for the film's music, at least it brought back Alan Menken for the score, after the miserable Hans Zimmer experiment; but the songs, with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, aren't particularly memorable: quick, hum "Just Around the Riverbend!" The Oscar-winning "Colors of the Wind", is I suppose, hard to forget: but I might be inclined to call it the most awfully overrated song in any Disney movie, suffering as it does from twee lyrics, and an unusually sedate melody from the usually inventive Menken (I am also still angry that it stole Randy Newman's Oscar for the top-notch "You've Got a Friend in Me"). "Sedate" - that's exactly the word I wanted. The songs are all very sedate, even the show-stopper "Mine, Mine, Mine", even the big "let's fight each other" choral piece "Savages", which ought to be tremendously offensive for its particularly problematic representation and moral equivocation (Colonists with guns and Indians with knives are on exactly the same ethical plane? Gotcha), is mostly just boring.

The failures of the film are no-one's fault in particular, though it seems to have ended the feature directing careers of both Mike Gabriel (who co-directed The Rescuers Down Under) and Eric Goldberg, both of whom continued on as designer and supervising animator, respectively; but it is clearly a filmmaking-by-committee film, and that is exactly why it suffers. Of course, all Disney films are ultimately by committee, but usually there seems to have been a strong guiding hand: Ron Clements and John Musker in their films, or Howard Ashman, or so forth. Pocahontas seems more than anything to have been created out of the executives' whims that there would be a serious, historically-minded Disney epic, and the rest proceeded haltingly from that.

Despite a comfortably profitable run in theaters, Pocahontas was still regarded as the first significant box-office disappointment at Disney in years, and it was one of only two films to violate an otherwise uninterrupted run of Disney features each outgrossing their immediate predecessors that began when The Great Mouse Detective outperformed The Black Cauldron. Only 1990's The Rescuers Down Under (a film with only moderate marketing and no real expectations of doing more than returning its own cost to the company) joins Pocahontas in raining on this otherwise financially rosy parade.

It is tremendously satisfying (intellectually if not emotionally) to thus call 1995 the beginning of the end for Disney's dominance over the animated feature. Taken only as a function of box office, Pocahontas marks the beginning of the end of the smash hits: though it would take several years before Disney features started to regularly lose money on their production and advertising budgets, after this there would be no more massive successes on The Lion King's model: no future Disney animated film would pass $200 million at the box office, and only one managed to break $150 million.

There's more to it than just a simple matter of money, though: things were changing at a fast clip, more than Disney could keep up with. Previously, when they'd had their aesthetic missteps, there was nobody there to take up the slack; and when Don Bluth had threatened to move into Disney's space during their especially weak run in the 1980s, Disney recovered in a huge way that sent Bluth spinning into the abyss. But the late '90s didn't just see the company fighting off one former employee, although as coincidence would have it, a former employee was their biggest competition. Jeffrey Katzenberg, angry that he wasn't promoted to president following Frank Wells's death in 1994, had a very public falling-out with Michael Eisner that led to his leaving the company to form, with music maven David Geffen and Hollywood titan Steven Spielberg, a new company called DreamWorks SKG, complete with an animation division that would, within ten years, regularly trump whatever animated features Disney tried to put out at the box office.

In 1995, though, it wasn't just the looming spectre of Katzenberg that threatened Disney; nor was it the huge increase in popularity of anime, the Japanese cartoon imports that, starting with Akira in 1989, introduced Americans to the idea that animation didn't have to be family-friendly; it could indeed have ambitions both narrative and artistic that Disney would never consider for the most fleeting moment.

No, the single thing that happened in 1995, besides Pocahontas's stumble at the box office, to indicate the future decline of Disney's traditional animation, was the fault of Disney itself: in November, six months after Pocahontas, the Walt Disney Company distributed a movie that it had financed, but not produced: it was made by Pixar Animation Studios, the company that had helped to develop CAPS and oversaw the integration of CGI into the Disney animated features. This Pixar-Disney collaboration, a certain Toy Story, was the first full-rendered CGI feature ever made, and it was the highest-grossing film of the year; what followed is a matter of reknown, as Pixar swiftly, and crushingly, proved that they were far better at creating true masterpieces for the whole family than Disney had been since the early 1940s, maybe ever. There can be no better comparison than Pocahontas and Toy Story to explain why Disney's fortunes fell even as Pixar's soared.

But let us not be too harsh on Pocahontas: it is still a lovely movie to look at, and it has the bravery to look at a moment in American history too easily forgotten: those days in 1607 when whites and natives discovered that it's better to work together and be friends, and that is why there was never again strife between those two races for the rest of history.

10 comments:

Stephen said...

I was looking at a list of Disney movies to see what's coming up and there are some films coming that I'd completely forgotten even existed. The end of this retrospective will be bleaker than I already thought it was going to be.

Stephen said...

Also: you are a stronger man than I, and I've thoroughly enjoyed reading these. I don't think I could stand to watch the last few films in the Disney canon.

Tim said...

My anticipation for The Princess and the Frog is, I pray, enough to get me through the likes of Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Brother Bear.

Only booze will be enough to get me through Treasure Planet again.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

It's still turning them into an Other; a "good" Other, maybe, but that's hardly as good as making them no Other at all. This is not a problem unique to Disney; if I remember rightly, Dances with Wolves suffers from it as well, along with plenty of other film

I don't think this is particularly fair to Dances With Wolves. I understand the broader point, but while DWW may be guilty of some "Othering" of the Indians, it wasn't especially grievous, if I remember correctly. I mean, among the Lakota, you've got the conservative leader (Ten Bears), the curious diplomat (Kicking Bird), and the suspicious asshole (Wind-in-His-Hair). They're archetypes, sure, but they don't exactly sum up to a sweeping picture of faceless, perfectly good people Living in Harmony with Nature. And the Pawnee are as much the villains of the film as the U.S. Cavalry. The main sin seems to be the facile division between the "good" Lakota and "bad" Pawnee, but I can forgive that as a simplification born out of Dunbar's Western biases (the raiding that the Pawnee engage in has been viewed as a savage practice since long before the sacking of Rome). Much worse is the depiction of all white people other than Dunbar and Stands-with-a-Fist as amoral monsters. That's just crude storytelling born out of white guilt functioning in overdrive.

But, uh, yeah, Pocahontas is problematic, to say the least.

Samuel Wilson said...

At the time, I thought Disney jumped the shark somewhere past the halfway mark of this picture. For me, the first encounter between Pocahantas and Smith was a tremendously suspenseful moment and "Colors of the Wind" seemed like a fitting follow-up. But "Savages" is the beginning of the end.

javi75 said...

Maybe I'm alone in liking the movie but I wouldn't call it the worst of Disney's 90's.
I understand it may go too far being politically correct, but I think the story works well for what it is (a "impossible love" story with a tolerance message), and I like all the songs except "Just around the river bend", which is awful.

I think faulting the movie for historical inaccuracy is missing the point. It's a cartoon musical. I don't think anyone will watch it expecting an history lesson. Maybe they shouldn't have used the historical names, that's true, but I believe the intention of the filmmakers was to deliver an old-school romance set inside a plea for tolerance and understanding between civilizations, and not an historical analysis of what actually happened then and there. By those standards, I think they succeeded.

Brian said...

As a boy reaching the age where Disney was supposed to be losing it's grip on me (I turned 14 in the fall of 1995) the opposite was happening. After seeing Beauty And The Beast on VHS, and regretting that I hadn't gone to see it in the theater, I made up for that by seeing Aladdin and The Lion King and Pocahontas. Pocahontas was the last Disney Animated feature I have ever seen in a theater, in all the years since, not counting Pixar. Yes, it was that bad.

Tim said...

Now, now, there has been some good stuff in all that time. Like Lilo & Stitch, or The Emperor's New Groove. Neither of which I saw in theaters, so I'm hardly one to talk. Man, Disney's a frustrating company.

Jesse said...

This essay has, bar none, the greatest closing paragraph to a film review I have ever read. Bravo.

Pan Miluś said...

In my homble opinio... while there are some good stuff about this movie... I think that the Pocachantas character is the most bland of all the Disney princesses... Heck, even not princesses, just Disney heroines in general. Out side of singing those two songs there is nothing memorable about her. It's especialy stick out when every other character has some comical aspet to him or her, while Pocachantas is just there.

She's also the only Disney female charactr who get on my nerves as looking to much like a hot model.

Agian not a bad movie but the main heroin is weak as hell...