Nov 25, 2016

Alternative to What: "Pocahontas" (1996)

Welcome to Alternative to What: a weekly column that tries to find a great alternative to driving to the multiplexes. Based on releases of that week, the selections will either be thematically related or feature recurring cast and crew. The goal is to help you better understand the diversity of cinema and hopefully find you some favorites while saving a few bucks. At worse, this column will save you money. Expect each installment to come out on Fridays, unless specified. 

Pocahontas (1995)
- Alternative To -
Moana (2016)

It has been awhile since Disney released an original princess movie. In fact, they're becoming increasingly rare in their general output. With that said, it's a moment of excitement thanks to the presence of the first South Pacific princess named Moana, whose journey is expertly orchestrated to tunes set by Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. The journey on the open seas leaves wonder as to what will happen and, better yet, if she will be able to fit alongside the decades upon decades of Disney Princesses who have won over hearts and are now on their live action adaptations. Only time will tell how well Moana does in the bigger canon.
Until that time, let's look back on another Disney Princess who has been around for 20 years and has established her own legacy. Pocahontas is another film set around travelling by boats and interacting with new and strange worlds. In this case, Pocahontas interacts with the white men who come to shore to take their land. It's a confrontational plot, and one full of historical commentary on the evils of greed. The film still has the penchant humor and an excellent Alan Menken soundtrack, but it feels like one of the few characters steeped in activism, as if preaching for a tolerance that goes beyond love interests and behaving to other people's standards.
Pocahontas is self-reliant and knows how to work her way through any situation. This is in part because she has a loving relationship with the Earth that she walks on. As she sings in the Oscar-winning song "Colors of the Wind," it's important to respect the nature that has given society so many wonderful gifts. It shouldn't be dug up for corporate greed. This is one of many themes - including fear of interracial relationships - that the film chooses to explore and helps to set its mid-90's release as one of the first Disney princesses to have a strong and independent voice. Thankfully, she has a great soundtrack, too.
The film is also indicative of something that has been lost with time: hand drawn animation. Even if Moana looks great with its CG animation, there's something more endearing about seeing the painstaking work that went into making Pocahontas what it was. Everything is gorgeously drawn and mesmerizing in ways that the better Disney films could do. While they pale in comparison to Studio Ghibli, it still is very impressive for American animation. When set to the Menken score, it becomes a majestic piece of art, and one that recalls both a vintage aesthetic for the studio as well as a progressive future on a narrative level.
The simple truth is that you can't go wrong with revisiting any of the Disney classics in preparation for Moana. It will just mean that you have a different set of songs stuck in your head. I mostly chose Pocahontas because of how underrated it has become in comparison to Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. More than anything, Pocahontas was one of the first Disney films that felt like it was trying to say something beyond the long held mantra "Some day my prince will come." Her journey has so much else going for it that it doesn't matter. Moana isn't bogged down in conventions either. And that's a good thing.

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