Pocahontas – A Legend Comes To Life

by Steve Collins

In 1995, Walt Disney Pictures released the first Disney film where, as the tagline states, “an American legend comes to life.” Pocahontas, the first Disney film based on an authentic historic figure, was the 33rd animated film ever released by Disney Studios and marked the pinnacle for the Disney Renaissance which had begun in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. This film was one of the few Disney films to ever portray an interracial romance (between Pocahontas and John Smith).

The expectations for the production were very high. Jeffery Katzenberg, the then-studio boss, considered it a prestige project capable of vying for a Best Picture nomination in the same vein as Beauty and the Beast. Indeed, Katzenberg felt Pocahontas would out-perform the tremendous returns The Lion King enjoyed. Unfortunately, the adult themes of the film undermined its appeal to children and though it failed to meet expectations, Pocahontas did earn approximately $142 million domestically and $348 million worldwide.

Pocahontas enjoyed the largest premiere in film history, premiering at Central Park in New York City. Though the publicity certainly did drive revenues, the film was criticized for variety of historic and ethnic inaccuracies. Some critics felt the characterization of Pocahontas was too “fashionably exotic,” while other critics condemned the historical accuracy. In reality, Pocahontas was prepubescent when John Smith encountered the Powhatan tribe. She was kidnapped by the English, converted to Christianity, married to both a Powhatan warrior, Kocoum, and then to the English tobacconist John Rolfe. Furthermore, most historians refute the notion of a romantic relationship between Pocahontas and Smith.

By contrast, the film was celebrated for its distinct animation style. The sparse color palette and, by Disney standards, unusual use of a mother spirit motif set Pocahontas apart from typical Disney fare. The score of the film, composed by Alan Menken, was likewise well-received – so much so that it earned the Academy Award for Best Original Score. The theme song, “Colors of the Wind,” also written by Menken, with Vanessa Williams on vocals, won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Song.

Though Pocahontas was a commercial disappointment, it would prove to be more successful than its successor The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Indeed Hunchback would mark the end of the Disney Renaissance, during which the studio raked in nearly $1 billion. The studio would release a sequel, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, in 1998, direct-to-video.

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