Pocahontas vs Hercules
I’ve already talked a bit about Disney films when lockdown first came into effect, but I thought I’d go back to the subject after a conversation that I had in the office with some of my friends around Disney films of the 90s, and which ones did and didn’t work. I was under the belief that the two Disney films that worked the least that came out from the 90s animation department were Pocahontas and Hercules, two films that are often considered to be a bit of a mess by most film critics.
Pocahontas was definitely not in a great position considering it was released around the time of Aladdin and The Lion King, and it did not end up doing very well with critics after those releases. But Disney put a lot of faith in the film; they believed this film was going to be their break into The Big Time with awards, to such an extent that they thought it was going to break the barrier and be the first animated film to win Best Picture, especially after Beauty and The Beast got a nomination. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t. But the idea that it was going to happen made a lot of the animators working on The Lion King want to jump to Pocahontas as that was considered the more prestigious film. So, a few years have gone by and Disney has only released one animated film after Pocahontas, that being The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a personal favourite of mine; did better with the critics but didn’t do as financially well as Disney expected and wasn’t incredibly as well-received. Though, a large portion of that was down to the fact that The Hunchback of Notre Dame (THOND) was a very hard film to market, and the marketing only really concentrated on ‘The Feast of Fools’ scenes and omitted a lot of the more dark sides of the film.
Hercules was made by The Little Mermaid and Aladdin directors, Rogers and Clements, who would go on after this to direct Treasure Planet and Moana. There was a lot riding on Hercules for them, mainly that the film needed to be a success in order to get Treasure Planet off the ground, which was a film the had wanted to make for a long time. If you want more information on that, I would recommend watching Lindsey Ellis’s video, ‘Hercules: A Hot Mess’. It actually informed the arguments that I’m going to be making in this piece. Hercules, though whilst it was somewhat financially successful, it was not to the extent that Disney was hoping for. I think it’s rather telling that there was only one other traditional animated Disney film, i.e. fantastical setting, cuter animation, and it being a musical after this, that being Mulan. Tarzan was definitely a step in a different direction, especially with the Phil Collins soundtrack, and it would have a very different direction going in the early 2000s, most emphasized by the fact their first releases in the 2000s were The Emperor’s New Groove and Atlantis. So, I decided to look at these two films which are often considered to be a bit of a mess by a lot of critics and decide which one was slightly better. I took a good look at both of these films – I wanted to look at both the positives and the negatives and decide which one is the better film. For this, I’m going to be talking across five categories: the songs; the animation and art style; how each movie interpreted their respective culture; the characters and performances, and the story structure. Let’s begin.
Round 1: Songs
Well, this is a tough one. Both of these are sort-of traditional musicals, but Hercules is a little different. After THOND and Pocahontas had not been as financially successful as Disney were hoping, this seemed to be their first step in maybe moving away from the traditional musical. Hercules certainly has those moments in there – ‘Go the Distance’ and ‘I Won’t Say I’m In Love’ are both very traditional in that sense, but the majority of the songs in Hercules are done by the Muses. This is one of the things that has really characterised Hercules; it’s a real mismatch of strange choices, and the major song style for Hercules was American Gospel Music. Pocahontas, on the other hand, is completely traditional. The best way to put it is, to go back to something I learnt from Lindsey Ellis videos, musicals are often either diegetic or non-diegetic (i.e. they are actually happening in the plot, it’s all entirely real and the characters are genuinely breaking into song – a la, something like West Side Story – or they’re completely separate, like in a dream sequence or like, for more of a contemporary example, Chicago). Hercules tends to go for the latter, whereas Pocahontas tends to go for the former. There are very few moments in Pocahontas where the musical numbers are about an interpretation of the character. Personally, I think in that sense it works better in Hercules. I think there’s a lot of suspension in disbelief you have to have in musicals that don’t often work, and Hercules kind of uses that to its advantage.
But let’s go into the songs themselves, and this is where we have a bit of an issue. If I count the number of songs I liked in these films, you’re not going to get a very high number in Pocahontas. I really hate the song ‘Just Around The Riverbend’, and ‘Colors Of The Wind’ is now so generic it’s actually become a source of parody and rightfully so. This was considered very cliché in the 90s when it came out, and it has not aged well. There are songs I do like though, mainly the villain songs, mostly notably ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’ and ‘Savages’. One of the things I found interesting though is that some of the songs on Pocahontas did receive lyric changes, but they had never been changed for the actual film. The film still kept the line, ‘Their whole disgusting race is like a curse,’ whereas the soundtrack had the more palatable, apparently, ‘Here’s what you gets when the races are diverse.’ Now, I know what they were going for with this film, but Jesus, it doesn’t look good either way. I know Radcliffe’s character is a horrible racist, but I have no idea why Disney wrote that in in the first place. There were other changes in the song they had to make, but the soundtrack CD keeps these in. What the- As a result, it’s created one of the biggest senses of confusion.
Now, the Hercules songs definitely avoided a lot of the controversies that Pocahontas had. I’m not a fan of ‘Go the Distance’ or ‘I Won’t Say I’m In Love’ which incidentally are the two songs which are most like a traditional musical. But the song ‘Zero to Hero’ is really good, which unsurprisingly was used for the theme song for the Hercules animated series which, trust me, is way better than you remember it being. But then they also had ‘A Star Is Born’ which is also an excellent song. If I had to compare the two, I think I’m going to give the point to Hercules on this one. I do like the song Savages but it is really hard to listen to now, especially considering that they kind of half make out that the Native Americans are just as blinded by rage and racism as the white guys, which is incredibly tone deaf. So I kind of can’t really reward it on that basis, and ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’ is the only other song in the film I actually really quite like, and even then it has a tangent in the middle with John Smith which kind of goes off into the middle of nowhere and really doesn’t know what it is doing, and I’m just thinking, “Can we please get back to Radcliffe?” Meanwhile, Hercules has three songs I legitimately quite like and on that basis, Hercules gets the point.
Round 2: Art Style and Animation
So, let’s talk about the art style and animation of these films. If you’ve seen a Roger and Clements Disney movie, you know what to expect with Hercules – it’s very similar to Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, to such an extent that the Hercules animated series actually had a crossover with Aladdin’s animated series. It’s just as fun as you would expect, in spite of the fact that the genie does not appear in the entire episode. No, Robin Williams was not still upset with Disney, he just wasn’t available. But they couldn’t even get Dan Castellaneta back? Sorry, tangent, let’s get back to the point. Now, Disney went with Hercules in a similar fashion that they took Aladdin; the idea that this is a sort of Vegas interpretation of Greece. Pocahontas, on the other hand, is going for a more realistic approach. But here’s the thing – I kind of think the art style in Hercules is a lot more distinct. This is maybe because they hired Scarface who did the art for Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ to be the animation director, and again, weird jumbled choices that were brought into the production of Hercules. But here’s the thing: As good as Hercules’ art style is, and there are a lot of great interpretations of character design as well as the world design, and the animation flows really well, it doesn’t feel like it’s that experimental. The only really experimental moments are the scenes which are designed to look like mosaics, mainly in sequences like the ‘Zero To Hero’ sequence and the stuff for ‘The Gospel Truth’. Scarface’s designs just feel like they’re kind of out of place. This was one of the first Disney films though to really experiment with computer-generated animations since it was used in Aladdin for bigger sequences and to vibrantly animate the magic carpet. Again, mainly used for the hydra, which, urgh, that animation has not aged well.
Pocahontas’s animation is not as experimental but there are a few moments. Definitely one of the bigger moments is once again in the ‘Savages’ sequence, in a particular with Pocahontas’s run to stop the conflict, Pocahontas’s shadow reflecting an eagle, or the two charges being in both the foreground and the background. There are a lot of decent animation ideas done here. This was very even. While Hercules is a little more experimental, Pocahontas does not play it safe. And, as a character design, Pocahontas is very good at being realistic, that when you get a character like Radcliffe, he almost feels like he stands out too much. It’s not just the fact he’s a lot taller and pudgier than everyone else, but his design looks really elongated and there are a lot of straight lines, no round lines. I know, this is meant to point out that he’s the villain, but I think they overdid it a little bit.
So, which one wins? Um, the point once again is going to go to Hercules in this one. I went back and forth on this one, but Hercules takes more risks and there are less points where I think it fall down per se. As much as I think the hydra sequence has not aged well, we still remember that sequence a lot, and it would be a moment which would give Disney more to work with. When Pocahontas’s animation flubs, it really flubs. I never liked the design of Grandmother Willow; it definitely looks like the computer animators did not really know what they were doing as well as they thought they did. And I must repeat: Radcliffe’s design is still atrocious, and he sticks out too much. He kind of looks like he was designed for a different movie.
Round 3: How They Interpreted The Culture
Okay, first things first, this is not going to be a discussion on cultural appropriation – I am not willing to go down that rabbit hole. And secondly, I am fully aware that the real Pocahontas’s story was way, way darker, and that will play some factor in my decision-making for this but will not be the total deal. That is going to be pushed to one side entirely, though I will be talking about how their individual cultures felt when the films were released. Now, in real life, Pocahontas was a member of the Powhatan tribe so that is the culture that the animation team were aiming for. And, of course, Hercules is Ancient Greece.
Since Hercules’s story was a myth rather than historical fact, they had a lot more interpretation to work with. Obviously, they did not go all-out with how the Greek myth and legends worked. That would have probably scarred you considering how the Greek Gods are interpreted in the classic myths and legends. The guards in Disney’s Hercules are not vain and they aren’t completely egomaniacal. They also seem to only be Gods of one thing, whereas the Greek Gods often would swap jobs or have multiple jobs. They really don’t explore that many of them. The animated series definitely did more with the Gods than the movie did. Now, there are also a lot of minor changes to the mythology and how the Greeks worshipped the Gods that was obviously not put in, to make it more palatable to an American audience. But in terms of the myths and legends, it is not entirely inaccurate. But yeah, they are more Easter egg sequences. You get most of the challenges that Hercules had to do in the ‘Zero To Hero’ sequence, something that was probably a wise idea, though obviously they cut out when Hercules had to help clean a farm of a literal river of crap. I think the biggest change they made was the fact that Hades might be the lord of the underworld, he’s not the devil and he’s not the villain in the original mythology. Though, really, given how Hades is in the movie, would you want him any other way?
Now, Pocahontas obviously had a bit more of an issue. While the Greeks are very interested in their personal history, it is not incredibly secret to them, and it’s not very recent history. For Native Americans, however, this is very sacred for many of them and this is very recent and very painful history; you have to get this right. And wow, Disney’s film is the definition of “token gesture, not brilliantly executed” – many Native American audiences still do not take the film very seriously and find it rather insulting. It doesn’t really just focus on the Powhatan tribe but actually merges quite a few Native American tribes’ cultures into one. Not a bad idea in theory, but it plays more into a stereotypical angle that we’ve had about Native Americans that we still haven’t been able to really get around. There were a lot of differences between all these different tribes and they all had different belief systems and even different languages. Honestly, it’s genuinely fascinating when you look into it. It’s for that reason I’d actually be genuinely interested for someone to make a Pocahontas film that is close to the actual history.
That’s another problem – Disney were basing a lot of this story on John Smith’s biography which he wrote several years after he left James Town, and it’s been widely discredited and considered inaccurate. And what’s more, there is some screwed-up stuff in that book about his relationship with Pocahontas. If you want more information on that, Adam Conover did an excellent segment for his show Adam Ruins Everything on it, which is made even funnier when you realise how John Smith actually left what is now America and under what circumstances. Now, Disney obviously cut out the more, for a lack of a better word, problematic elements of John Smith’s biography and turned him from a pudgy bearded man into an Adonis voiced by Mel Gibson. Obviously, that doesn’t play a factor in this category, but you can obviously see where they’re going with it.
Both of these make token gestures and both don’t do too well, but really, with Hercules you know what you’re getting – while you’re not getting a very accurate take on Greek myth and legend, you’re getting something of it and it kind of works. Pocahontas, on the other hand, there were some nice features, but this is still a film that a lot of people still do not like to this day in relation to its interpretation of culture.
Point goes to Hercules.
Round 4: Characters and Performances
Okay, so Pocahontas is only playing for pride now, but let’s see if we can win back a few points here. The performances I’d say are pretty even. There are obviously more A-List stars in Hercules, with Danny DeVito and James Woods in their respective roles. The biggest star in Pocahontas is Mel Gibson who was one of the biggest stars in the world at the time that film came out. This is obviously before we knew how nuts he really was. As for the performances, I really think they’re kind of evenly matched. I think there are some good performances both sides, so now I’m going to look at the comic relief characters. Pocahontas has a couple, mainly the animals, and while we’re on the subject, for a film that’s all about communicating with nature, why don’t the animals talk in this movie? This would be the one time I would actually think it would kind of work; it just seems like a very strange decision. Not a lot of these moments got a laugh out of me. That’s not to say I thought that Phil was a good comic relief character in Hercules. This was still around the time that Disney were desperately trying to recapture Robin Williams’s performance of the Genie to not great effect, but I will say that there are some half-decent decisions.
As for character arcs, well, again, going back to the Lindsey Ellis video, I have to agree with her point that Moana is kind of Pocahontas’s story arc done better. Again, really check out her video on Pocahontas – it’s another fascinating watch. Pocahontas has a decent character arc, but it is not the best one; she didn’t really have that much of a personality. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I think Radcliffe sticks out for a lot of people as he has a lot more personality than most of the rest of the cast. Now, Hercules does not have as many characters and the use of them is actually really not great. There are a lot of characters who are very prominent in the first half of the film that are virtually gone by the second half. Have you noticed how Zeus kind of basically disappears for virtually the entire middle act of that film? Hercules’s adoptive parents don’t get any lines after he leaves home—again, they were better used in the animated series—and everyone kind of feels a bit underutilised. Hell, Hades doesn’t even really do much until the film portion of the movie. So Pocahontas might have more characters and it might use them well but they’re not as interesting as Hercules’s characters which just work a bit well.
This point is going to go to Hercules, and it’s mainly for one reason: James Woods as Hades. This is another perfect actor to character match – James Woods really makes that role his own, and he really can bring out that smarmy side of the character. He’s properly into the role and is one of the best parts of that film. If the plans of a Disney live-action remake of Hercules are true, I really wouldn’t mind if he came back to reprise the role.
Point to Hercules.
Round 5: Story Structure
Okay, I’ve already talked about most of what these films are, but I’m also going to talk about the thematic elements of both of these films. Now, Pocahontas fails on a lot of levels because, again, it kind of implies a false history on a few levels. Yes, there was a peace for quite some time after the James Town settlers, but it was not as peaceful as the ending of the film implies, and I’m not going to get into that whole history right now. Honestly, look it up if you are genuinely interested. But more to the point, it does feel like another one of these 90s films that puts down the idea of racism as being an individual issue rather than a systemic problem. So, any sense of the fact that the villains are meant to represent how modern-day racism takes a hold is kind of lost, especially considering that everyone kind of changes on a dime. You ever noticed how at the end everyone kind of just puts down their weapons almost out of nowhere, it doesn’t feel like there’s been much growth?
So thematically, on that sense, Hercules wins. Sort of. Hercules is still a very confused film thematically on a lot of levels. It doesn’t really quite know what it wants to be, and there’s a lot of conflicting ideas that are going on. This is where Hercules’s biggest weakness is: Its story structure is kind of all over the place, and there are a lot of plot holes actually throughout the film. I shouldn’t be thinking this much about this. That being said, as much as Pocahontas kind of fails a bit on its themes, it wins on its story structure – it’s actually a decent 3-act structure. The story structure is actually quite well-handled. I personally think, while I prefer Hercules’s story, on a technical level, Pocahontas is better in terms of its structure. But here’s the thing, I find Pocahontas’s story way more boring and way more forgettable. With Hercules, I could tell you every beat from that film. So as much as I think I should give the point to Pocahontas due to the fact that it technically is better in this field, it’s as a result of that that its story is not as memorable. And when it fails on its themes, it fails miserably.
Hercules, on the other hand, might not be as well done but I personally remember it more, enjoyed it more and for that reason Hercules wins this entire thing 5-0.
I didn’t set out for this thing to be just a rag on Pocahontas and praise Hercules. I think Hercules has a lot of issues with it – I wouldn’t put it up there with the best 90s Disney films or even the best animated Disney films, but I went to look at two messes that had both been allotted by critics as the downfall of Disney, and when I look at them, while I think Hercules probably did more damage to Disney’s stocks since it was the wrong film at the wrong time, I think Pocahontas has had more of a lasting down turn for Disney. I think there’s a very good reason why Disney does not bring this film up a lot, and is also why I think they want to not be a part of the live-action remake that are being brought out repeatedly.
If you like Pocahontas, that’s perfectly valid. There are perfectly valid reasons to like that film. I was just saying why I think Hercules is the better movie. And hell, in a couple of categories it was close. Story structure it could have easily won, and it was very 50/50 when I talked about the art styles and the animation. But overall, I have to say that Hercules is the better movie of the two.
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