Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Pocahontas

I know.

I suck at blogging.

I haven't even posted anything dance-related in... well, let's just say way too long and leave it at that. I guess that's what comes from actually having to work at teaching dance; I spend all my free time choreographing and planning lessons now.

But that doesn't matter, because I really like writing for The Film Experience when I can, and I especially like participating in Nathaniel's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. It's fun, and when I've seen the chosen film and had to agonize over which shot to choose, it's more interesting to see what other people chose. It's a sense of community that I just love.

Anyway, this week's selection is Disney's Pocahontas. Not exactly the strongest film of the so-called "Disney Renaissance", but probably the most underrated. Coming as it did immediately following The Lion King, it was probably going to feel like a let-down anyway, but Disney does not have the best track record in dealing sensitively with other cultures (Peter Pan), so the choice to tell the story of the Native American Pocahontas and British explorer John Smith was probably not the best choice of story for them. And honestly, at it's best, Pocahontas feels more like a dry run for the much better Mulan than its own fully-formed film. Even so, I remember first seeing the trailer for Pocahontas when I was a young boy of about 10 and being kind of awed by it. The trailer was basically just the full "Colors of the Wind" sequence, but it was strikingly different from anything Disney had done before and in one spectacular moment, downright breathtakingly gorgeous:

THAT. Is so fucking gorgeous that you momentarily forget that the phrase "can you paint with all the colors of the wind" is maybe the most ridiculous lyric Stephen Schwartz has ever written (which is saying something). I don't think there's ever been a moment that impressionistic in a narrative Disney feature film before or maybe even since. It's completely singular, instantly recognizable, and bordering on iconic, a high-water mark for the film's animation. But it's not my choice for the best shot.

I certainly thought it was going to be when I sat down to watch the film, but that's the way these things usually go, isn't it? You think you remember a film, and then you watch it after many, many years, and you learn things you never knew you never knew.

Or, you know, you just see something that completely passed you by the first time. Whatever.

Anyway, my choice for Best Shot is contained in what is in my opinion the film's best song, "Savages". In it, the British colonists and the Native Americans each prepare to do violence to the other group, and sing a song with remarkably similar lyrics, prompting the (perhaps obvious) question of who the real savages are. It sounds a bit obvious, but it's a very mature theme for what is clearly a children's film, and the film doesn't shy away from it, coming up with some striking imagery of guns and cannons replacing the bodies of the colonists and of the Native Americans putting their warpaint on.

The best moment comes at the end of the number. As the two sides prepare, fires in both camps send streams of smoke up into the air, reflecting the growing shadows of their soldiers. The shadows get stretched and distorted almost beyond recognition as the clouds of war continue to expand, and they meet, like this:

followed immediately by a crash of lightning and the end of the number. It's one of the best images of a vision of war I think I've ever seen, and it's something that couldn't really be done in a live-action film. There are more painterly shots in Pocahontas (which certainly isn't the prettiest of Disney films), but I think this is the most meaningful, the most multi-faceted, and perhaps the most adult. It's dealing with big themes that kids don't think about and visualizing them in a way that kids can understand at every level: it's clear not only what's happening, but that's what happening is wrong, and both sides are equally to blame. That's probably the best theme Disney was ever going to get out of telling this story, and this shot encapsulates it perfectly.

. . .

There's also room for a totally dirty interpretation of this shot that amuses me, even though I don't subscribe to the whole "Disney movies were totally dirty and made to fuck up kids without them knowing!" thing.

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