Yes, Pocahontas is gorgeous, with its sharp graphical aesthetic that is reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty and “Once Upon a Wintertime.” It’s directed by two of Walt Disney Animation’s very best, Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. There are a couple of catchy tunes. But, and I apologize to your nostalgia-worshipping inner child when I say this, it’s also pretty lousy and a sobering reminder that pedigree does not equal entertainment value. Gabriel’s original pitch, utilizing an image of Tiger Lily from Peter Pan, supposedly received the quickest green light in the history of the studio. (This had to do with a number of factors, including the rapid-fire way that movies were pitched back in the day, the alluringness of the image Gabriel had created, and the studio’s long held desire to make an animated version of Romeo & Juliet.) Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, for his part, thought it could be another Beauty and the Beast, while Disney chief Michael Eisner worried that it couldn’t live up to the standards of the recent slate of hits and nitpicked details of the story and music.
Ultimately, Eisner was right. The film just doesn’t work as well as it should. It’s both too heavy and, at the same time, the attempts to alleviate the darkness just come off as tonally inconsistent and out-of-place. You can feel it strain to maintain its seriousness, even during sequences with talking trees or comedic pugs. It’s puffed up by its own inflated sense of self. “Colors of the Wind” is a showstopper, for sure, but otherwise can you name another song from the movie (besides the incredibly questionable “Savages”)? While the character has maintained a fair degree of popularity due to her inclusion in the Disney Princess consumer products line, the movie has largely faded from memory. (Not that it was a smash to begin with; compared with those earlier releases from the same timeframe, it underwhelmed critically and commercially, although a rousing Pocahontas-themed ride was planned for the eventually-defunct Disney’s America theme park.) In every sequence of Pocahontas you can feel its good intentions but those same intentions are what make it feel so safe and boring. Quite frankly it could have used a little savagery.