Comparing the Pocahontas Musical Energy with the Recollection of the Horrors of the Actual Story


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Years after the VHS tapes went missing, VCR’s no longer working, and another few months of avoiding it on Netflix, I finally decide to sit down and watch Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg’s animated Disney musical Pocahontas (1995). Against the trademark sky-blue-and-white etched castle of magic, an accompanying series of rhythmic drum rolls fill my ears with surprising grandeur. My cynical adult mind travels to visions of sinister events for which this music is about to accentuate, like a march to the gallows, but this is a Disney movie. Nothing so wretched as a march to the gallows could begin a Disney film. The ensuing fanfare for “The Virginia Company” disperses my thoughts; it’s a rousing effort to say the least, and the moment mere minutes later when the song is reprised as a segue into the Native Americans’ song, “Steady as the Beating Drum,” is a highlight of this film.

Despite its status as filler against the backdrop of its predecessors, Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), I’ve always appreciated Pocahontas for its candid depiction of Native Americans as people, not as savages. It is dark; dark, at least for a Disney film. People get hurt, and people die. Who dies in a Disney film? And yet death is a pervasive plot point of Disney’s 90’s-era animated musicals. Here, death is a consequence of needless, misplaced hatred. The film’s message is tolerance, and its method is to use the dual-focus narrative not only as a tool for story progression, but also as way to relay the message it sends. Disney musicals from this era have a strange relationship with dual-focus narrative, often using it in non-traditional ways or abandoning it altogether, which seems to hint at the possibility that even a classically-structured musical needs no such tradition of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back.”

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In Pocahontas, Governor Radcliffe has an insatiable greed for gold. When his attempts to dig for it fail, he assumes the native “savages” must have the gold, and his greed turns to rage when his best soldier, Captain John Smith, is captured by the Indians and must be freed by way of a full-scale assault on the village. Meanwhile, the Indians wish only to defend their land from the intruders, and when their best warrior is killed in action, they capture John Smith, who is to be sacrificed as the first blood spilled in the fight with the Englishmen. Conflict brews here because of greed and misunderstanding, and Pocahontas is the only one to make peace with the Englishmen, namely the same John Smith, with whom she falls in love. This plot appears to be very similar to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, right up to the end, when John Smith is shot in the chest and, rather than establishing the couple as living happily ever after, as per dual-focus, he must be sent to London so he can heal, and presumably the two never see each other again. (This is rectified by direct-to-DVD sequels.)

The message driven home by the finale is that neither the Indians nor the Englishmen are very different people, and should treat each other as equals. Dual-focus is used to support this message in numerous scenes, but it is most notably apparent in the scenes during which both John Smith and Pocahontas are about to meet each other in the wilderness; both of the characters are stopped by their respective best friends, with both friends saying that the other faction is dangerous. Not only does this scene exemplify the idea of dual-focus (both sides of the couple’s lives are individually spotlighted), but it also supports the message because each warning is functionally identical. Evidence throughout the movie suggests that these two factions have no reason to feud, and because each faction is entrenched in the lives of the couple’s halves, showing these similarities supports the dual-focus narrative.

Three years before Pocahontas was released, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s Beauty and the Beast (1995) was at the 64th Academy Awards, nominated for Best Picture, and was the first animated film to make that achievement. Beauty and the Beast is a very strong film, marked not only for advancements in animation technology but for almost single-handedly reinvigorating interest in Disney’s animated film musicals. It contains positive messages easily discovered by a reasonably intelligent viewer, but not made so obvious that they sound preachy. Like Pocahontas, it also uses the dual-focus narrative in such a way that it supports the film’s message, which, in this case, is inner beauty.

The backstory, told through narrative and stained-glass windows, depicts an arrogant prince who won’t accept an old woman, stranded in the cold, into his lustrous and warm castle simply because she is appallingly ugly. The prince is cursed for his misdeeds and is forced to live his life as a hideous beast until either he should find a woman to fall in love with him (seeing past his exterior to find his inner beauty, as he was unable to do with the old woman), or until an enchanted rose wilts on his twenty-first year, sealing the curse, to never be broken.

The film progresses as such: Belle, the plucky bookworm whose name in French means “Beauty,” and Beast, the tortured soul and master of the castle in the dead forest, must fall in love and be together in the end, and through a very textbook usage of the dual-focus narrative (or so it seems), they do. Both are given strong character, and the film spends equal time on each, letting them build and develop over the course of the 90-minute film. While this would normally be a simple use of dual-focus, the themes of inner beauty transform this narrative type into one that, in turn, naturally supports the message. “Something There,” the only number sung by both the male and female lead, almost explicitly states the message with the repeated lyrics, “There may be something there that wasn’t there before.” Here, we see that Beast has inner beauty but outer hideousness. Meanwhile, we glimpse Gaston at his worst throughout the film, showing us his outer beauty and inner hideousness. Belle is the only character with both inner and outer beauty, and the film heavily implies, when the spell is broken at the admission of Belle’s love for the beast (conclusion of “The Mob Song”), that real beauty can only come from the inside. We wouldn’t see these messages if it weren’t for the duality of the film’s focus on both main characters.

Indeed, dual-focus is now a popular, tried-and-true method for Disney. Many, many of its films, from Snow White (1937) to Cinderella (1950) to its more recent release, The Princess and the Frog (2009) use this method of storytelling in some way, but there is one oddball in the Disney canon that, despite the following fact, has become incredibly popular and beloved as a musical: Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s The Lion King (1994) has no dual-focus narrative, or at least very little of it.

After the opening fanfare that gives the film its fame and the rowdy, headstrong Simba’s character is created, we find him and his friend Nala on an adventure through the Pride Lands with the royal babysitter, Zazu. It isn’t long before the two lion cubs rid themselves of Zazu (“I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” in an obvious nod to Busby Berkley that is apparently common in Disney Films), and they find themselves at their intended destination of the elephant graveyard, beyond the borders of the Pride Lands. The dialogue in these scenes, especially the earliest between Zazu and the two, foreshadows the romance of the two cubs to the point of establishing it out of nothing, and it is confirmed with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” merely halfway through the film.

What this means is that the film wants to quickly build a romance between Simba and Nala so it can instead shift its focus entirely to Simba (with exceptions for the villain and a few comedic quips from the duo of Timon and Pombaa) and his quest for self-discovery as he takes Pride Rock back from his evil uncle Scar. This focus demotes Nala to the role of side character, and the ultimate culmination of their romance feels more like the second half of “hero saves the day and gets the girl” than dual-focus, and the film does little with this romance except to continually enforce the reading of Mufasa’s rebirth as Simba with the final scene mimicking the opening number. If there is a dual-focus narrative here, it is so thin that it might as well not exist, proving that Disney, and indeed musicals as a whole, can work effectively without it. The film is undeniably excellent, and works well as a musical without that plot element.

All three of these films join the ranks of the great film musicals catalogue no matter how they use (or abandon) the dual-focus narrative. We can glean from them that, if we do use the narrative, we don’t have to use it in a traditional sense, and we can twist it in such a way that it fits into much larger messages and subtexts; we can use it to layer our films with meaning, to artistically and virtuostically tell a story that rises beyond the archaic simplicity of a plot meant only to make us feel good while we listen to music; and if we don’t use the narrative, then the musical will still work effectively, and it doesn’t need to be a linchpin for its definition as “musical.” In cases like Pocahontas, the boy may not always get the girl (or the girl the boy), but we will learn an important lesson, and we will be moved to tears.

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