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Directors: Mike Gabriel & Eric Goldberg
Release Date: June 23, 1995
Rating: ★★½
Review:

In the early nineties the Walt Disney studio was on a roll. Since 1989’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ all its features met with both critical acclaim and huge box office successes. Especially, the studio’s previous film, ‘The Lion King’ (1994) rather unexpectedly broke all box office records, being the highest-grossing motion picture of all time until ‘Finding Nemo’ came along in 2003.

Thus, not surprisingly, the expectations were high for Disney’s next feature, ‘Pocahontas’, only to be followed by a huge letdown, even though the feature did rather well at the box office. ‘Pocahontas’ fails in almost every aspect Disney’s previous features succeeded: the film lacks an engaging story, interesting protagonists, a threatening villain, appealing sidekicks, inspired humor or great songs. Of course, being a Disney film, the film’s animation is outstanding, and so is the film’s design, but that’s unfortunately not enough to rescue a film that collapses under its own pretentiousness.

The film is very, very loosely based on the historical John Smith’s accounts of Pocahontas (ca. 1596-1617), and is terribly unhistorical in almost every aspect. Worse, the film is saturated by political correctness to a fault, and can count as a document of historical revisionism. The film tries very, very hard to portray the native Americans as real people, but nevertheless falls into the trap of the ‘noble savage’, reinforcing the myth that native Americans were living in more harmony with nature than Europeans ever did. Of course, the coming of the Europeans was a tragedy to the native Americans, as it started their demise (only a mere handful of the Tsenacommacah, the tribe depicted, still survive today), and it is practically impossible to make a positive film, let alone an uplifting Disney musical, out of such subject matter. In that respect the film was doomed from the outset.

The film starts In London with governor Ratcliffe (1549-1609) wanting to explore the new world to regain status at the court of king James I. We watch Ratcliffe establish Jamestown , and in the finale of the film Ratcliffe is overthrown by his own men, a very unlikely event, by all means (in reality Ratcliffe was killed in an ambush by members of the Pamunkey tribe). While in Virginia Ratcliffe is obsessed with gold only, regarding the native inhabitants as mere pests.

The misunderstanding between the Tsenacommacah and the British almost leads to war, while the love between Pocahontas and John Smith shows that this does not need to be so. The film is one large advertisement for mutual understanding. A welcome message, for sure, but delivered with heavy-handedness and aplomb. In fact, the rather hippie-like message of love conquers all has been stale since 1970, and is in fact rather painful considering the real events following the establishment of the British colony in Virginia.

Additionally, the film suffers from dire dialogue, and an all too obvious emphasis on delivering its message. Most of the movie progresses slowly and sentimentally. What doesn’t help is the uneasy mix between the serious clashes between the human groups, and the fluffy child’s world of the animal sidekicks. Perhaps the film’s best scene is the final one, in which, against all rules of Disney logic, Pocahontas and John Smith part, never to be reunited again…

Part of the movie’s problems are the leads themselves. Admittedly, star animator Glen Keane has animated Pocahontas very well – especially the scenes just prior the first meeting between her and John Smith are outstanding. However, Pocahontas is presented as a brave, mature and independent woman, which contrasts highly with her childish animal friends, and, to be frank, with her rather irresponsible behavior. Moreover, she has very little to do with the historical Pocahontas, who converted to Christianity, while the movie Pocahontas practically converts John Smith to animalism, in a historically very, very unlikely sequence. Even worse, the real Pocahontas later married a planter, and died already at the tender age of 21. These facts are hard to bear when looking at the stout and proud woman Pocahontas is in the Disney film.

Yet, Pocahontas fares much better than her lover John Smith, Unlike Pocahontas, it’s pretty hard to love John Smith, who’s presented as a fearless and almost flawless hero from the outset. John Smith is surprisingly blasé, and pretty vain, too. In fact, in a way Smith has more in common with Gaston from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ than the animators would be willing to admit, and there’s nothing really interesting about him. In fact, Smith remains a remarkably blank character, having a bland design and a weak story arc, typified with the song ‘Savages’, in which Pocahontas teaches him a lesson on the subject of ‘savages’, the worst of the all too clear messages of political correctness in the film. Animator John Pomeroy must have had a hard time breathing some life into this dull character.

More interesting characters are Pocahontas’ friend Nakoma, who, to me, has actually a more appealing character design than Pocahontas herself has, and her father, Chief Powhatan, who arguably is the best designed character in the whole movie. These two Indians are more interesting than all Europeans. Best of these is Thomas, a youngster that is so clumsy he would have died within months in the real world. Governor Ratcliffe is a very unhistorical character, who looks more Spanish than British, and who is foolish enough to try to dig up gold at a random shore. In the 17th century they certainly knew better than that. Ratcliffe is a rather poor excuse for a villain: he’s more vain than scary, and at no point a real threat to anyone, as is proven by the film’s finale. He’s accompanied by a servant called Wiggins, who provides the only convincing comic relief in this all too serious film.

Wiggins certainly is more tolerable than the three animal characters, the overtly cute raccoon Meeko, ditto hummingbird Flit, and Ratcliffe’s pet pug Percy. The three steal considerable screen time, they have their own subplot of enemies befriending each other, and are completely out of tune with the serious subject of clash of civilizations, and threat of war. By the time ‘Pocahontas’ was released, one got the impression that ‘animal sidekicks’ were obligate additions to the rule book of Disney feature film making, a feeling that was corroborated by ‘Mulan’ (1998), in which the animal sidekicks (a dragon and a cricket for God’s sake!) were even more outlandish and superfluous.

Yet, the worst character in the whole movie is Grandmother Willow, a talking tree. Apart from the fact that she’s brought alive by dated computer animation, this is a concept that even in a world full of spirits I will not buy. Grandmother Willow is such an outlandish, unbelievable character, she hampers the whole movie, and makes it very, very difficult indeed, to take the more realistic events seriously. Someone should have vetoed her presence early in the conceptualization of the story.

The soundtrack isn’t of any help either. The songs are by composer Alan Menken, who provided the hit songs for ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989), ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) and ‘Aladdin’ (1992). Not one of the songs in ‘Pocahontas’, however, reaches these heights. Instead, we are treated by very generic and surprisingly forgettable nineties-musical songs. What certainly doesn’t help are the trite lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, which suffer from the same political correctness as the rest of the movie. The ‘Savages’ song forms the low point of the film in that respect.

No, the film’s unquestionably strongest point is its design, and it’s art director Michael Giaimo and artistic coordinator Don Hansen who should be praised most. More than any other Disney film of the Disney renaissance ‘Pocahontas’ looks back to the stylized designs of the late 1950s. For example, the film starts with a 1607 scene that is very reminiscent of the London scene in ‘The Truth About Mother Goose’ (1957), while in the rest of the film the background art, supervised by Cristy Maltese, is a straight echo of Eyvind Earle’s artwork for ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959), including square trees. The human designs, too, are more angular than ever, even to a fault, rendering some of the characters stiff and unappealing, especially some of the Indians, who at times look like technical art school drawings instead of living humans.

In fact, the film is most interesting for its outstanding color design, which with its grand greens, blues and purples is comparable to the best of ‘Fantasia’ (1940) and ‘Sleeping Beauty’, and one must admit that ‘Pocahontas’ certainly is a film worth looking at, if not necessarily one to watch. Indeed, I believe ‘Pocahontas’ will be remembered for its design elements, a clear product of the animation renaissance, especially as an early product of the school that looked back to the cartoon modern age (ca. 1948-1965), as exemplified by several television series from Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network from the second half of the nineties, which were, not surprisingly, often made by former CalArts students of Giaimo.

Watch the trailer for ‘Pocahontas’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Pocahontas’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: July 7, 1939
Stars: Betty Boop
Rating: ★★
Review:

Rhythm on the Reservation © Max Fleischer

In ‘Rhythm on the Reservation’ Betty Boop visits and Indian reservation, trying to buy a tom-tom drum.

Meanwhile, her car full of musical instruments, is emptied by the native Americans, who are too dumb to use them properly, and use them for various purposes. But when Betty starts a swinging tune, they join in, sort of.

These scenes make ‘Rhythm on the Reservation’ a late variation on ‘Trader Mickey‘ (1932), which had featured cannibals. Of course, such scenes make the short an offensive and hopelessly dated cartoon. Unfortunately, it was to be Betty Boop’s last. It’s a sad ending for a once so promising career. But Betty Boop had lost most of her charm already in 1934, and by 1939 she felt like a leftover from another era. With her series, and that of the Silly Symphonies ending (the latter series ended in April 1939), one can say more or less goodbye to the 1930s.

Nevertheless, Betty was surely missed, as the Fleischers never came with another successful star of their own to replace her: Gabby (1940-1941) or the donkey duo of Hunky and Spunky (1938-1941) hardly count, and Popeye and Superman were owned by King Features and DC Comics, respectively. Meanwhile at Warner Bros. people were defining a new cartoon style that would dominate the 1940s…

Watch ‘Rhythm on the Reservation’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop’s 83rd and last cartoon
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: The Scared Crows

‘Rhythm on the Reservation’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 25, 1938
Stars: Popeye, Olive Oyl
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh © Max FleischerThe title character of this cartoon is a stereotype Indian chief who longs for a squaw, as he immediately tells us in his opening song.

Enter Popeye and Olive on a stubborn donkey. At one point the donkey kicks Olive inside the Indian camp, and she seems to fall for the chief’s advances. The Indians, meanwhile, order Popeye to perform some difficult tasks, and with spinach he does them much better than his Indian rivals.

‘Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh’ is an uneven cartoon, and suffers from inadequate storytelling, and severe stereotyping. The cartoon is saved by Jack Mercer’s constant mumbling, which is particularly inspired.

Watch ‘Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 59
To the previous Popeye film: The House Builder Upper
To the next Popeye film: I Yam Love Sick

‘Big Chief Ugh-Amugh-Ugh’ is available on the DVD Box Set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 29, 1933
Stars: Popeye, Olive Oyl, Wimpy
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

I Yam What I Yam © Max Fleischer‘I Yam What I Yam’ was the second cartoon starring Popeye, and the very first in his own series, taking its title from one of Popeye’s most famous lines in E.C. Segar’s comic strip.

The short opens with an original opening tune that would only last two cartoons: ‘Strike up the band for Popeye the sailor’. After ‘Blow Me Down!‘ this peppy leader was replaced by Popeye’s own song, which he also sings in the opening scene, with Olive Oyl rowing a bark to an unknown island. When they’ve washed ashore, Popeye punches a bunch of trees into a log cabin.

This film introduces his famous sidekick from the comic strip, the gluttonous freeloader Wellington Wimpy. In his first dialogue, Wimpy quotes a classic line from Segar’s strip “Come on in for a duck dinner. You bring the ducks”. So, Popeye goes forth in search of ducks. However, within seconds Olive and Wimpy are threatened by Indians. Luckily Popeye comes to the rescue. In a spectacular finale Popeye knocks down every Indian in sight, even their gigantic chief, whom Popeye punches into Mahatma Gandhi…

Interestingly, before Popeye arrives, Olive appears very much in control, knocking down Indians by the minute, while crying for help. It’s nice to watch a female cartoon character being portrayed so strong and independent, far from the cliched damsel in distress, as portrayed by e.g. Minnie Mouse.

Popeye’s and Olive’s designs are still rather unstable in this short, but Olive’s voice sounds much more familiar than in ‘Popeye the Sailor’. The cartoon makes little sense, but is very enjoyable, nonetheless. Its joy is enhanced by an excellent musical score.

Watch ‘I Yam What I Yam’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 1
To Popeye’s introduction in the Betty Boop cartoon ‘Popeye the Sailor
To the next Popeye film: Blow Me Down!

‘I Yam What I Yam’ is available on the DVD Box Set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938’

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: July 7, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear
Rating: ★★
Review:

Indian Whoopee © Van BeurenIn ‘Indian Whoopee’ Cubby reads about Captain John Smith and Pocahontas before falling asleep.

Our hero soon dreams he’s John Smith himself, camping in the woods. He’s soon discovered by an Indian, however, and threatened by the whole tribe, including a pretty funny gay one. After a chase scene, Cubby is captured and about to be executed, despite the pleas of the little Pocahontas girl. Then, of course, he awakes.

‘Indian Whoopee’ is pretty boring, especially the chase scene is surprisingly low on gags, and lasts way too long. The best gag may be the little Fleischer-like gag of tent pegs pulling Cubby’s tent down, when he almost snores it away.

Watch ‘Indian Whoopee’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Indian Whoopee’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’, the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray/DVD ‘ Technicolor Dreams and Black & White Nightmares’

Directors: John Foster & George Stallings
Release Date:
 July 23, 1932
Stars: Tom and Jerry
Rating: ★★★
Review

Redskin Blues © Van BeurenImmediately after having insulted the black part of the population in ‘Plane Dumb‘, Tom and Jerry turned their attention to the native Americans.

‘Redskin Blues’ opens without delay: Tom & Jerry are riding a stage coach, surrounded by Indians on horseback. The fight is severe, and soon their coach is destroyed completely. Tom & Jerry manage to escape to the top of a large cliff, but the Indians use their feathers to fly(!) after them. Soon Tom & Jerry are captured and tied to stakes. But with their feet the two play a lively xylophone tune on the wood surrounding them, prompting a dance scene.

When Jerry blows a horn for help, the cavalry arrives, and the navy, and the air force, and a battalion of tanks. Needless to say, the Indians flee, but a Buffalo Bill-like type catches the chief, who turns out to be Jewish and who scares everyone away with a single mouse.

‘Redskin Blues’ is a fast, and action packed cartoon. The rescue scene is one of the most inspired gags within the complete series, and would prompt similar scenes in the Marx Brothers film ‘Duck Soup’ and the Fleischer cartoon ‘Betty Boop’s Big Boss‘ (both 1933). Nevertheless, the film’s highlight is a short sequence during the dance scene in which some sexy squaws dancing in a circle.

Watch ‘Redskin Blues’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 13
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Plane Dumb
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Jolly Fish

‘Redskin Blues’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 November 20, 1930
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Pioneer Days © Walt DisneyIn ‘Pioneer Days’ Mickey and Minnie are pioneers travelling in a caravan through the Midwest.

After an all too long sing-and-dance-routine they are attacked by vicious wolf-like Indians. These bring in some spectacular animation: a dance with long shadows around a bonfire, a complex attack scene, and an impressive shot taken from one of the horses circling the encampment, showing a moving background of wagons in perfect perspective.

Most spectacular is the fight between Mickey and a horrible Indian, who has kidnapped Minnie. The fight is shown in close-up, and contains quite some complex movements between the two. It’s scenes like these that show that Disney kept taking the lead in the animation field, ever pressing forward.

Of course, our hero saves the day: when he and Minnie pretend to be the cavalry all the Indians flee.

‘Pioneer Days’ is Mickey’s first of only a few films clearly set in another time period, and thus the precursor of ‘Ye Olden Days‘ and ‘The Nifty Nineties’. The film recycles some footage from ‘The Fire Fighters‘ of two dogs holding a bed to catch falling people.

Watch ‘Pioneer Days’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 24
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Picnic
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Birthday Party

‘Pioneer Days’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: ‘Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: June 28, 1945
Stars: Porky Pig
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Wagon Heels © Warner Brothers‘Wagon Heels’ is one of the least known of Bob Clampett’s masterpieces.

In this short Porky is as a scout of a ‘wagon train’ (a weird mix of a caravan and a train). He has to face ‘Injun Joe the Superchief’, an enormously powerful Indian. In this he’s helped by a very silly blue Hillbilly character called Sloppy Moe.

‘Wagon Heels’ is a remake of the already very funny ‘Injun Trouble’ (1938), but it’s weirder, zanier, wilder and much better timed than the original. ‘The film is extremely rich in nonsensical gags, the highlight being the demonstrations of Injun Joe’s indestructible power. The result is an utterly hilarious film, and an indisputed highlight in the Bob Clampett canon.

Watch ‘Wagon Heels’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Porky Pig cartoon no. 110
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Trap Happy Porky
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: Baby Bottleneck

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: May 1, 1924
Stars: Virginia Davis (Alice)
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Still from 'Alice's wild west show' featuring Virginia Davis blowing smoke ringsAlice organizes a wild west show for the kids in the neighborhood.

All goes well until the bully Tubby O’Brien and his gang show up. Her fellow actors chicken out, so Alice has to improvise some stories about her experiences in the ‘wild and woolly west’. Enter the cartoon sequence.

In her first story she defeats some Indians. In the second one she’s a sheriff in a saloon, smoking a cigar and attending a bad performance of ‘Sweet Adeline’. Meanwhile, the villain, “Wild Bill Hiccup” tries to steal the safe. He and Alice end up in a gunfight in which every other person in the saloon gets killed. She chases the villain by car, returning the safe in the end.

The gang of bullies is not impressed and they pelt her with vegetables. But Alice chases them all out of her humble theater, beating up Tubby O’Brien herself. The cartoon ends with her triumphant smile.

The live action footage, with the instantly lovable Virginia Davis as Alice and a bunch of local children, is highly entertaining. None of the animation, by Ham Hamilton and Walt Disney himself, is particularly interesting, however. Indeed, two months later, Disney would quit animating himself, leaving that to his more skilled employees, like Ub Iwerks.

Watch ‘Alice’s Wild West Show’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Alice’s Wild West Show’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

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