Monthly Archives: April 2011

April 29, 2011

Disney Canon #33: Pocahontas (1995)


ADAM Well. That might be the worst one.

BETH It’s hard. I still think Fox and the Hound was worse.

BROOM This at least had production values in its favor. Fox and the Hound seemed shoddy even on that level. Not to say that this didn’t also have dubious choices in the visual department. But it looked like something. Fox and the Hound looked chintzy most of the time.

ADAM Four movies ago we were so excited that this breath of fresh Broadway air was being blown into the Disney musical, and now they’ve already exhausted that possibility, such that we are going to have to shift into ‘tude and snark as the next mode.

BROOM They had already started shifting within this movie. The totally gratuitous forest animal characters were not actually characterized this time around. They were just ‘tude.

ADAM But that’s in all of them, that’s not snark.

BROOM Can you say any word to characterize Flit the hummingbird? What would you say is Flit’s salient personality trait?

ADAM Didn’t the little mermaid have a fish friend, who did nothing but get into trouble with the shark?

BROOM Yeah, Flounder. He was an enthusiastic buddy character who was a little childlike, looked up to her. She had charisma that was cool to him.

ADAM I don’t think that these characters were that different. The raccoon would not have ever said “Cowabunga.”

BROOM That’s only one variety of ‘tude.

ADAM This was just so formulaic. It was kind of awesome at points, actually, just how super-Broadway it was.

BETH The tree-chopping number, what was that called?

BROOM “Mine Mine Mine.”

BETH That was so over the top Broadway, it was so choreographed and…


BETH Yes, but not even that. Just the lavishness of that crazy number.

ADAM Whenever you have a song cross-cutting between two different characters expressing two different things…

BROOM The supposed parallel between the two halves made absolutely no sense in that song. They just decided it was going to be “one of those.”

ADAM I think that when they did “Savages” and “Colors of the Wind,” they were high on their visual daring. I think they thought they were Mary Blair, totally paving new ground. I think they were like, “this is some sophisticated shit that we’re doing here!”

BROOM I think they thought they were unearthing the beautiful paving of old ground. I thought they thought “we are doing Sleeping Beauty for the first time in two generations. No-one has really done this in years.” And you know, it’s true! It’s too bad this movie sucked ass, because that is a thing worth digging back out. But it never felt sensible.

ADAM Everyone say what you thought was the thing that made it terrible, beyond merely just dull.

BROOM For me what made it was terrible was the intensity of a complaint that I’ve made about previous movies, about The Lion King: that they were doing it all just because they knew that these were things you’re supposed to do, but that they did not understand the reasoning behind any of it.

ADAM The complete insincerity.

BROOM It’s based on a fervent superficial understanding of prior Disney movies, which makes it feel… gay, for want of a better word. It’s fetishistic. Whatever it means to them doesn’t directly have to do with what it’s actually supposed to “mean.”

BETH Mine is sort of related to that: they didn’t seem to think about who would be watching this. Does this appeal to kids at all? It’s a love story! As a kid, I never cared about the love story part of stories, and it was all a love story. And then it was war-ish. I just don’t feel like they were thinking about how it was playing to the intended audience.

ADAM I find this exceptionally offensive because it’s about a really lurid and tragic period in American history. It’s like if you did a Romeo and Juliet with, like, a slave daughter and a plantation owner’s son.

BROOM Or a Jew and a Nazi.

ADAM Yeah, kind of! I mean, it’s wonderful that she makes this peace between them, but of course they’re all going to die in three years from smallpox. To take a nominally historical subject and make it into just cannon-fodder for your schmaltzy story… was terrible.

BROOM But, to go back to what I said about Lion King, what’s offensive is that they on some level agree that it would be irresponsible to just do that, so they start making a show of caring about “showing proper respect.”

ADAM Well, the PC-ness of it was also bad.

BETH That was just the 90s, though.

BROOM But you can get away with this tasteless, tasteless thing if the reasoning is just, “this is going to be a good story; I know we can sell this, guys.” What’s offensive here is that the message of the movie is to paint with all the colors of the wind, like the Native Americans did, and talk to the trees, like the Native Americans did.

ADAM Do you remember the ill-fated sitcom… I think it was “All-American Girl” with Margaret Cho, in the late 90s? And the producers were super-excited that it was the first sitcom about an Asian-American family, but then it fell apart in part because Asian-American groups denounced it, because one of the actors was Japanese, and one was Korean, and they spoke in like a mish-mash language. It was all just “Asian.” Here it was just a total pastiche of every cliche image of Native Americans that anyone could think of. Combined with a reverent sort of “…guys, the environment!…”

BROOM Let’s talk about why Avatar was better than this.

ADAM Because it wasn’t set in colonial Virginia; it was set in fantasy space. And it was even more luridly colorful.

BROOM I daresay that the main reason Avatar was better was because it was actually selling this totally hackneyed cheeseball formula story. And this never sold it. It never believed in any of the elements that needed to make it work. We didn’t believe that the characters loved each other; we didn’t believe that they were characters.

ADAM They had no personalities.

BROOM Especially him. She at least sang a song about the riverbend, which is weak but it’s something. He had nothing. He had nothing going for him. He didn’t look good, either.

BETH I beg to disagree. No, I don’t.

ADAM Even I don’t think he was hot.

BETH No, he was not hot. But she was so hot that it was like they didn’t know how to handle all the angles of her face. Sometimes she looked like a block.

BROOM Once again, the disproportionate expertise at drawing her ass and her breasts was inappropriate. They should hire people who have not practiced that as much. She was the best-drawn animation in the movie.

BETH Physically. Body-wise. But her face I had problems with.

BROOM Well, even her face was the best in the movie, because the rest of the faces… The animation was at once slick and polished, and also wrong. I felt like it was the CalArts class of 1992, and they’ve all been taught this and read books about “how to animate in the Disney style,” and it looks like phony crap.

ADAM And the villain, Captain Ratcliffe, was like weak tea. He was no Ursula, or Jafar, or Scar.

BETH He wasn’t even really a villain.

ADAM Yeah, he was just nothin’. And his just desserts are, like, a dry scone.

BROOM Because what are the desserts? Like you were saying, the whole story is distasteful: Are the white invaders demons who must be killed or else the natives are going to lose everything that they care about? Yes. This is true. Are they all likely to shoot the savages rather than talk to them? Yes. So it’s not just this one guy who’s the villain. He represents the beliefs of his entire culture; this is what he was sent to do. The amount of trickery that he actually resorts to is minimal, if any. As he says at the end, “I couldn’t have planned it better!” Because of course, he didn’t plan it. He doesn’t do anything devious. It makes no sense at all for there to be this preening “bad guy” character.

ADAM And it would have been better if they’d killed them. If the Native Americans had had a policy of no surrender, fighting every white person, they might have had a fighting chance of not all getting exterminated.

BETH A very irresponsible movie.

BROOM The songs are very bad. The lyrics are very bad.

BETH Yes, and thought they were clever, which made it worse.

BROOM Yes, that’s Stephen Schwartz trying to show that he’s a pro. Alan Menken dug Disney out of the hole of the 80s with Little Mermaid, so they obviously feel very indebted to him, and they’re going to keep hiring him, but I think here we see that he has his limitations. He couldn’t figure out what to do. “Okay, the Englishmen are going to sing an Englishmen’s sailing song at the beginning… go.” And look what he came up with.

ADAM Which was the same as the Dane’s sailing song at the beginning of The Little Mermaid.

BROOM But that song was actually charming on some level. This was like the squarest…

BETH I felt like they knew it, because they were muffling it. You couldn’t actually hear the words except for “Virginia” at the end.

BROOM I think it was badly music-directed. A lot of the recordings were not well done; a lot of the singing was not good.

BETH Did Mel Gibson do his own singing? It sounded like it. [ed.: It seems he did.]

BROOM You said the orchestration of “Colors of the Wind,” which was supposed to be so spectacular, was disappointing to you.

BETH It was jumbly. I thought it was being ostentatious and getting in the way of the song communicating. It just sounded weird to me; I kept noticing it.

BROOM In all the arrangements, you felt the strain of them trying to express some kind of sweep, and they couldn’t get there.

ADAM WhoooSH! I can’t make the sound of an orchestra, but, like, that harp sound.

BROOM When I think from an editorial point of view, I think that wanting to get sweep across in a love story — all the effects they wanted to achieve — they’re not impossible things, and when they work, they’re worth doing. It’s just an issue of craft. Resorting to the damn swirling leaves on the wind every time you want to show that something is magical and stirring is weak. It shows that you don’t know what you’re doing.

ADAM You should see The New World, the Terence Malick movie, because it’s about the same subject, the grandeur and mystery of two cultures meeting, but it’s a good movie, in part because it’s really spare. Whereas here to convey this grandeur they had to make more waterfalls… you know, more cowbell. I had that in the back of my mind as I was watching this, and the tastelessness of this was exacerbated by that contrast.

BETH I think the only actual character in this movie was the tree. The only fully-realized thing.

BROOM Full realized as a fairy godmother; she wasn’t anything more than that.

ADAM But at least she was something.

BETH I was just thinking, if I were a kid, what part would be my favorite part? What part would I look forward to if someone put this on in school, or something? It would be the tree part. And that would be it. Or the colors at the end, because it was kind of visually interesting.

BROOM My favorite would be the parts that had visual flair. “Colors of the Wind,” which was supposed to be like an animation spectacular… you know, sure, it was.

ADAM I liked the friend.

BROOM Oh yeah, she’s a real character.

BETH That’s true, she was real.

ADAM The real Pocahontas, incidentally, did go to London. And they sort of paraded her around court, and then she died there a couple years later.

BROOM She probably wasn’t as beautiful.

ADAM No, I don’t think she was. Probably because she was a fourteen-year-old girl. And John Smith was in his forties.

BROOM So with that in mind, how could this movie possibly have happened, really? They were like, “what should we make a movie about?” and they have a bunch of things on the wall. You know, “Treasure Island… Robinson Crusoe…”

BETH Don’t you think it was that they could make a really hot character? “I really wanna draw this woman.” I think that has something to do with it.

ADAM I think they just wanted to have some sort of non-white heroine. Mulan‘s coming up.

BROOM Powerful. Female. Minority.

ADAM “Betsy Ross! Oh, no, wait.”

BROOM And because this movie so deeply doesn’t work, because this story doesn’t actually lend itself, it’s so transparent that that’s the only reason this movie exists. And that’s embarrassing!

ADAM I really think Sacagawea would be a cool story. At least that at least has a sort of adventure plot.

BROOM She actually has to be good at something.

ADAM Sacagawea was my favorite of the Value Tales. She was like the “Value of Adventure” or something. It’s not as much just a nubile Indian princess who locks eyes with the white man. She has to win Lewis and Clark’s respect through her canny tracking.

BETH This was just so dull! Even in the beginning, when the ship was going through the storm, I found my mind wandering.

ADAM I know! My mind just went blank!

BETH I found myself thinking about something else, and I was like, “wait a second! wait a second!”

ADAM I had the same experience! Because they were just doing a storm, and I was like, “oh, storm storm storm storm storm.”

BROOM Before the title, we’re subjected to a guy falling overboard and then John Smith saves him, which was supposed to be the characterization scene for John Smith, which is such a mistake. And those of you reading at home should know that at that point, Adam, or Beth, I can’t remember which one of you said it, asked “can we start talking over this movie?” It was already obviously bad, thirty seconds in. I mean, it was bad one second in, because they were singing what may have been the worst song in the movie. And that’s sayin’ something.

ADAM And Thomas, who I think was supposed to be poignant, because he’s trying to be loyal to John Smith but then he kills the guy, which could be interesting, but he’s just nothin’. He even looks like a nothin’.

BROOM He looked worse than Johnny Appleseed. Okay, here’s what we haven’t directly talked about: the art direction, which seemed to be the one thing in this movie that seemed to have some passion behind it…

BETH Yes, there was passion behind it.

BROOM So what did we think of it, though?

ADAM Garish and unpleasant to look at.

BROOM I thought the Mary Blair-isms, at least in this desert, were pleasant.

BETH Yes, occasionally there would just be a nice picture on the screen. At the end when they were about to kill them, it wasn’t necessarily well done but it was still interesting.

ADAM But why did everything have to be, like, pink and orange and electric blue, through the whole movie?

BROOM I think they were watching Fantasia and were like, “we work at Disney! We’re the ones to do this, now!”

BETH And I guess they thought it would work with the story because they’re in this new world.

ADAM Because of the colors of the wind.

BETH Exactly.

BROOM The songs in this were exactly self-parody.

[we then watch the Just Around the Riverbend sing-along feature and mock the song. Then we move on to the Colors of the Wind sing-along…]

ADAM Why do Broadway songs always sound like they have too many notes in them? They go up and down too much.

BROOM Because they think about story, and then they think about lyrics, and then they think about setting them, and that’s the wrong order for making a song catchy.

[Pocahontas sings “How can there be so much that you don’t know?”]

ADAM See, like why is this going up and down??

BROOM Because there’s too many words! If you just starting making up a melody, it would probably only have room for a couple of syllables in it. When you decide that you’re going to set “My name is Pocahontas and I’m an Indian princess,” then you have to go, yeah, up and down, all over the place, to fill out the time.

[We continue to heckle Colors of the Wind]

BROOM All the times in this movie where someone goes “whoa!” because magic is whirling around them, like when Cinderella gets her dress — which is the original of that image — that’s some seriously wussy fantasy, right?

BETH Whose fantasy is that, really?

BROOM It’s people who listen to music from Japanese role-playing games in orchestral arrangements. That’s a type of person. Hair blowing in the wind is really meaningful to them, somehow. And this movie felt like it had been made by them. And those are people who don’t understand people.

(we read the New York Times review)

BETH She started out saying that it was great and then backpedaled.

BROOM I think she wanted to say that it was great for some reason, possibly political, and then had to admit that many aspects of it were not. But she was overall more willing to go with this movie than we were. And I remember thinking it was terrible when I saw it originally.

ADAM This is not even the best movie about Native Americans made in the early 1990s. I mean, Dances With Wolves made me cry as a kid, over and over.

BROOM Kevin Costner would have been a better John Smith.

ADAM Between Dances With Wolves and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, I had such a crush on Kevin Costner.

(then we watch the Siskel and Ebert review)

BETH Blah blah blah, 90s.

BROOM Is Gene Siskel’s serious reaction there telling us that we need to remember that even though to our eyes now, this might seem like an infantile form of liberal guilt, we all were that infantile a mere fifteen years ago?

BETH Yes. I think so. I don’t know why everyone started being more aware of this in the 90s, but it was trendy.

ADAM Bill Clinton.

BETH And honestly, I think, “The Real World.” The show. I’m serious.

BROOM Explain.

BETH It was bringing diversity to young people. It was exposing the prejudices of the people in the house and making young viewers think about them. It had, like, a black woman who was a rapper from a poor neighborhood, and then in season two or three there was a guy with AIDs. It was consciously trying to be “diverse”…

BROOM Maybe this was your route to being made aware of this sort of thing.

BETH Yeah, it was, but I watched TV all the time.

BROOM And that was the first time that hit you.


BROOM This is a reminder to myself to look up whether “This is what you get when races are diverse” really was a lyric in this movie.

[ed. Yes. But on the soundtrack album the lyric is, reportedly, “Their whole disgusting race is like a curse,” which makes more sense. This was one of a couple of lyrics rewritten shortly before the movie was released, apparently because they had “tested” as too offensive.]

ADAM I feel like the 90s is when diversity became, like, “official.” Obviously there was consciousness of race and diversity in the 70s and 80s, but it was kind of a liberal thing, whereas I feel like in the 90s everyone capitulated and it became sort of state religion.

BROOM When did the phrase “political correctness” come into being?

ADAM 1991, I want to say. [ed.: more complicated than that] That was the time of the speech codes, and, like… Leonard Jeffries, this professor at CUNY who taught that white people are evil… I don’t know where the actual term “political correctness” stems from, but it was fresh enough in 1993 that Bill Maher thought it would be a funny title for his show.

BROOM Yes, exactly, it was still recent and live at the time of this movie.

ADAM I had this book called “The Politically Correct Handbook” that came out in 1993 that was just absurd politically correct terminology for various things, but it felt funny in 1993.

BROOM I remember “Politically Correct Fairy Tales” around the same time.

ADAM Right. I don’t know why that stuff seemed so funny then.

BROOM But having your eyes opened to the fact that “the story you were told in school was one-sided, man!” — that goes back much further. That was happening in the 60s… it was happening on an intellectual level for decades before that.

ADAM Yes, this is a fifty-year trend here, but it does feel — maybe it’s just because of when I was growing up — this feels like an inflection from the early 90s, but maybe that’s because that was also when I first became politically aware.

BROOM It definitely hit the mass culture in a big way at that point. Was it that it was seen as marketable, or did it just make people feel good about themselves to be peddling it? Did Disney do this because it made them feel good about themselves, or was there some kind of calculation behind it, like, “this is what sells now.”

ADAM Probably both.

BETH Yeah.

BROOM It’s strange stuff. And look at the reactionary price we’re paying for it now.

ADAM Yeah, although everyone understands that the Tea Party people, and the “birthers,” are all crazy wackos.

BETH Well, obviously not everyone understands! How did they all get elected, then?

BROOM No-one understands! The point is, they are the extremists, but a big chunk of the population considers them “not that crazy.” And the reason they feel that sympathy is because of terrible movies like this. This is the reason that Sarah Palin is a figure in our cultural life.

BETH Oh, I bet she likes this movie. It’s about a strong woman in the wilderness.

BROOM No! You know what people would say when they saw this: “Oh, of course, the white people are bad.”

ADAM I was going to make a joke and say that this movie is what turned [mutual friend] into a conservative, but that’s not such a joke. He started out as sort of a modern Democrat, but he loved to harp on this movie. It is true that [mutual friends’] umbrage at Liberal-dom is this feeling that the thumb of oppressive mediocrity is pressing down on us. This idea that “the grown-ups are telling you what to think.”

BROOM Oh, but they love grown-ups. They love really grown up grown-ups. Their horror is that actually grown-upness has been replaced with some kind of inane tea-sipping guilt-trip.

ADAM Pablum. Yeah.

BROOM This is like the ladies’ book club of self-flagellation, and that’s what they hate. That all of the real men who really know what’s going on are being told that they don’t feel bad enough about slavery. And that’s a totally sympathetic perspective, if it were actually how things work, but I think it’s mostly a straw man, one that persists because of movies like this, because of what went on in the mass culture. It’s in the popular imagination, and yes, that does affect elections, but it shouldn’t. But it does. Did people vote for Obama because he was black and it made them feel good about themselves to vote for a black guy?

ADAM I sure did!

BROOM Probably, yes. But they also did it because all those people for whom that is true and could totally be held against them also sympathized with his policies. This idea that things happen solely because of bullshit is only true in the forum of Disney movies. I believe. Well, maybe not only.

ADAM Well, after you turn off the recording I will talk more about why I voted for Obama, but I don’t want that to be on the internet.