|After nearly six decades of animated films based on fairy tales, famous novels, and original fantasy, the folks at Disney finally got around to making one based on actual historical figures. Well, mostly. The real Pocahontas may or may not have had a talking tree for a grandmother, a pet raccoon who could understand commands in English, and more sass than you can shake a stick at, but she definitely wasn’t a late teens to early twenties “Miss Teen Native America” beauty when John Smith and company arrived in the New World. Historical liberties aside, Pocahontas did its best to capture the colors, sounds and traditions of a vanished culture, all framed within the context of an impossible romance.
The story casts Pocahontas as a free-spirited young Powhatan woman, refusing to marry the tribe’s bravest brave simply because he’s too boring. Excitement comes in the form of European plunderers, led by the tubby and greedy Governor Ratcliffe. One of Ratcliffe’s men, the dashing blonde John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson), catches sight of the young woman and is soon captivated by her beauty and sensitivity to nature.
Pocahontas’ father forbids her to see the white invader, whom he considers part of a tribe of “savages,” but the girl gets more reasonable advice from the animated spirit of an aging “Grandmother Tree.” Due to a series of misunderstandings and Ratcliffe’s unscrupulousness, the two sides near the brink of war, and only Pocahontas can bridge the gap between them.
Disney took great pains to create a sensitive portrait of Native American life and culture, hiring a variety of consultants to frame the background of this cross-cultural love story. Their efforts were rewarded both at the box office and on Oscar night, winning awards for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score and for the song “Colors of the Wind.” It was the fifth time in seven years a Disney film had swept the two music categories (the other four were The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.) The studio followed up on this success with a direct-to-video sequel in 1998, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.