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“We’d been working it on it for a couple of months and then Jeffrey calls a “breakfast meeting”. And in the meeting, we have the whole crew from Pocahontas and Lion King. And Jeffrey said “Pocahontas is a home run! It’s West Side Story/Romeo and Juliet with American Indians! It’s a smash hit! Lion King on the other hand, it’s kind of an experiment, we don’t really know if people are going to want to see it.””
Rob Minkoff, Co-director of The Lion King.
Guys. You know me. I’m not a hatchet artist. I don’t enjoy tearing movies to pieces. I didn’t start this blog because I wanted to take cheap shots, I did it as a
cynical promotional tool to advance my writing career because I love this gorgeous, hilarious, deeply weird gaggle of animated films we call the Disney canon. And I know a lot of you have been looking forward to seeing me feast on this thing’s entrails like a rabid boar but I honestly cannot think of anything more dispiriting to write and unpleasant to read than one long, unending rant.
I’m laying down a few ground rules right from the start. Think of these as handicaps to give this movie a fighting chance so that it doesn’t just turn into a complete bloodbath.
- I’m not going to mark this movie down for its inaccurate portrayal of
Indians, Native Americans, American Indians, Amerindians, Native Peoples…
Not that the movie doesn’t get a lot of things wrong (I have it on good account that it does) but it’s not like I’m an expert so I don’t really feel qualified to call the movie out on its failures in that regard. See, the thing is…it is damn hard to write a portrayal of Those Guys in any medium that doesn’t end up annoying somebody. There are just so many stereotypes and tired tropes floating around that it is almost impossible to write a character that doesn’t fall into at least some of them. (Actually, if there are any Native Americans or people of Native American ancestry reading this I would be very interested to know if there are any portrayals in TV or movies that you feel actually got it right. Let me know in the comments.) I am under no illusions that by deciding to make this movie Disney wasn’t setting itself up for a lose/lose situation.
Having said that, let’s be clear: They FUCKING LOST.
- I’m not going to mark this movie down for its historical inaccuracy.
It’s a cartoon. Not a historical document. So I don’t particularly care that Pocahontas is not twelve and John Smith is not a forty year old ginger. I will still mock this movie like the dickens for comedic effect, but it’s not going to have an impact on the final score.
- I’m not going to mark this down for failing to address the issues of genocide, forced relocations, slavery et al.
It’s a movie set in 1607. Short of one of the characters getting their hands on a time machine, how can the movie address events that wouldn’t happen decades or even centuries into the future? Granted, it hangs like a big black hanging thing over the entire movie, but that’s more history’s fault than the film’s. Besides. Do you really want to see a Disney movie that gave a realistic
depiction of the Jamestown settlement? (Answer: No, no. Not even a little. No
I’m laying down these rules because, honestly, if this movie was good? If I cared deeply about the characters? If I was entranced by the story and thought the script was witty and emotionally satisfying? If I loved the art style and didn’t find the songs insufferably smug? None of the above would matter. You think I care that Mulan
is set in the wrong dynasty or that Jungle Book
makes no reference to India’s struggle for independence from British rule? Not a bit. So if it doesn’t matter to me when the movie’s good, why should it matter when the movie’s bad?
Oh yeah. The movie’s bad. Really bad. Like, a failure on all but the most technical level. Technically, it’s fine. The story structure is pretty much text-book. The animation is largely excellent if joyless and devoid of any real inspiration. But this thing is dead inside. It’s like someone killed a Disney movie and staged a macabre puppet show with the body. It’s the worst kind of formula driven, corporate movie making trying to hide its soullessness behind a vague veneer of empty New Agey spirituality. And it’s dumb. It’s really dumb. There are dumb movies, and there are smart movies and the great earth is big and rich enough for both but one thing I cannot stand is a dumb movie that thinks it’s smart.
So. How came we by this travesty?
Being Irish, I know a thing or two about booms and busts and when I read about the giddy optimism that was bubbling through Disney by the mid-nineties I can’t help but feel a little twinge of Celtic Tiger PTSD.
True story: Where I live was right in that thing’s crotch.
Under the guidance of the Katzenberg/Eisner/Disney triumvirate the Disney animation studio had gone from being a financial liability to a money making machine. Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Lion King. One after the other.
“HEY! WHAT ARE WE, INVISIBLE?!”
Four of the biggest animated movies, hell, four of the biggest movies of all time in a six year span. Couple that record box office take with equally record breaking VHS sales and merchandising and you are talking about a billion dollar enterprise. I wouldn’t be surprised if years later it turned out that the real reason Katzenberg left was that Eisner kept cheating during their daily money fights. And, to their credit, Katzenberg and Eisner made sure plenty of that money got to the people who made it all possible. Suddenly, the animators’ parking lot was filling up each day with Bentleys and Jaguars. Generous bonuses were being lavished all around and the animation wing had a brand new state-of-the-art office building built just for them. But there was a cost to all this. Whereas the animation studio that Walt Disney had founded would slowly and methodically work on one film, release it, and then start on the next, Roy Disney had decreed that a new full length animated film would be released every year. As well as working on Pocahontas, the animation studio was finishing off Lion King, prepping for Hunchback of Notre Dame and working on A Goofy Movie and Nightmare Before Christmas. This massive workload resulted in long hours, stress and more than a few ruined marriages. And the toll wasn’t merely psychological either. Watch interviews and footage of the Disney animators of this period and you’ll see a lot of people rubbing their wrists, flexing and unflexing their fingers, squinting…we don’t normally think of artistic fields of endeavour as being physically gruelling but animation can put an absolutely brutal toll on the human body. Then of course there was the tragic death of Frank Wells, a huge psychic shock to the company made worse by the ugly fallout and Katzenberg’s departure from Disney.
It’s not possible to recount why Katzenberg left without getting into a lot of “he said she said” bullshit. From what I can gather Katzenberg’s version of events was that Eisner promised Katzenberg the position vacated by Wells but then withdrew the offer because he was jealous of how Katzenberg was getting all these press accolades for having turned things around at Disney. Eisner, for his part, says that the position was Katzenberg’s for the taking if he’d just waited a while and not been lobbying for it so soon after Wells’ death. Did Katzenberg resign? Was he fired? Don’t know, honestly don’t really care. The point is, halfway through production of Pocahontas Katzenberg had left Disney vowing revenge.
“Fools! I shall destroy them all!”
I think all these factors, the over-work, the shock of Wells’ death, the sheer weight of expectation to keep the gravy train on the tracks and the bad blood caused by Katzenberg’s departure all combined to make Pocahontas a thoroughly miserable experience for the animators to work on. I have no proof of that, maybe it was an endless merry go round of delight, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way. There is a sense of joylessness that pervades this thing, like everyone was just gritting their teeth and thinking of the paycheck.
Kind of like me, except I don’t get paid.
Sigh. Let’s just get this over with.