The Prince of Egypt vs. Pocahontas

Why Disney couldn’t retell the story of Pocahontas with as much respect for history as DreamWorks did with Moses is completely beyond me.

Perhaps “DreamWorks vs. Disney” would be a more appropriate title; but alas, that would require too many films to compare. So, I’ll concentrate on two recent historical endeavors by each company, both films of very different stories and wildly different outcomes.

I’m speaking of The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks’ latest epic of Biblical proportions, and Pocahontas, the 1995 Disney tribute to the Indian (or shall I say “Native American” to be PC?) princess. Besides both being animated features, the only similarities shared between them are some obvious liberties taken with the historical facts.

Book Smarts

For those of you that missed Sunday School as a child or have forgotten everything from American History 101, let me briefly provide a synopsis of the historical figures known as Pocahontas and Moses.

Pocahontas was the legendary princess daughter of Chief Powhatan, ruler of the Algonquin Nation in eastern Virginia. She was probably only 12 or 13 at the time of meeting Englishman John Smith. Powhatan twice ordered the death of Smith, but Pocahontas interceded on his behalf. Smith and Pocahontas remained close friends ever since, as he often wrote of her in his personal journals. Very heroic stuff, and perfect dramatic fodder for Disney’s animation machine: interracial love (never mind that she actually married John Rolfe), Native American spirituality, and environmentalism.

Moses was born a Hebrew but raised an Egyptian in the house of the Pharaoh. He grew to sympathize with his people who were enslaved by the Egyptians. Following his God’s commands, he led the Hebrew nation out of Egypt, but not without the Pharaoh’s opposition. God in return protected the Hebrews by unleashing 10 disastrous plagues on the Egyptians, and then aided the Hebrew flight by parting the Red Sea. This epic also has all the ingredients for a great film. Indeed, we saw it 40 years ago in The Ten Commandments, so it was with much anticipation to see how DreamWorks could adapt the story for the children’s entertainment market.

Deviation from History

Being more than just history lessons, inevitably liberties were taken in both these tales for the sake of telling their stories. Pocahontas takes some that are egregious, but at times convincing. Prince takes some that are technically speculative, but marvelously creative and plausible.

While the reality of a Biblical account may be argued as nothing more than myth, it is rather interesting that DreamWorks put so much effort into retelling this story with such detail as originally recorded in the Biblical book of Exodus. DreamWorks apparently consulted with scores of Christian and Jewish religious leaders for the sake of accuracy. Why Disney couldn’t employ as much care for history with the centuries-younger account of Pocahontas is completely beyond me.

When it comes to historicity, DreamWorks beat Disney hands down. Disney’s version of its princess is a New Age Wonder Woman with measurements of 36-22-33. Maybe the Indians in that day matured early or developed primitive forms of plastic surgery. As if the whole Barbie worship weren’t enough, little girls and their impressionable egos everywhere were bombarded with this 90s-ized Wonder Bra-ed Pocahontas.

Then there’s the portrayal of the English explorers. This gang is led by Governor Ratcliffe, a caricatured pompous English aristocrat who’s heard one too many fabled Lost-City-of-Gold legends. He’s willing to do anything to get his hands on the yellow stuff. There’s something missing during their trip to the New World though. There’s a decided lack of hardship. Instead of dying of scurvy and brutal weather, the men are carousing and ruckus, singing about their future booty.

But Pocahontas wasn’t the only one to embellish its material a little. There are likewise liberal doses of historical fabrication for dramatic effect in Prince. The ultimate question is: does it detract from the basic story and accuracies of the events? I think not.

Prince handled some of the more profound moments of Moses’ experiences with wonderful reverence and severity, the way Ten Commandments should have. Strange coming from a cartoon but nonetheless impressive. Val Kilmer didn’t copy the Charlton Heston bravado; instead, he accurately voiced Moses’ probable apprehension of commanding a million of his fellow Hebrews, slowly gaining confidence with the miracles his God performed.

There are also many literary tools used such as foreshadowing and symbolism to enhance the Exodus theme. For instance, early in Prince the ideas of humanism and theism are pitted against each other. Rameses’ father and Moses’ stepfather, Pharaoh Seti, is considered an Egyptian god, who Moses soon discovers is in direct opposition to the God of his Hebrew people. We see Seti imparting wisdom to his sons in his courtroom, with a backdrop of slave laborers constructing the mighty Egyptian kingdom. Seti’s face and the outline of a great statue in his likeness line up eerily. Man is god here, with the monuments to claim it.

Later, Rameses wanders the halls of his newly inherited court and in flashback remembers Seti explaining the hieroglyphs on the walls which depicted the massacre of the Hebrew firstborn. To prevent a possible revolution, explains Seti, he ordered the firstborn Hebrew boys to be cast into the Red Sea. “After all, they’re only slaves.” Listening intently, the child Rameses was standing at the bottom of this great mural, precisely at the level of the painted sea. Little did he know that years later the tables would be turned — he would personally see the bottom of that sea.

Other indulgences were the portrayal of the “burning bush,” Moses’ first encounter with God, wherein a bush was engulfed in flames without being consumed. The scene was wonderfully imaginative and awe inspiring. We not only see what it may have looked like, but we get to see Moses? reaction to this wonderment: he incredulously places his hand in the “fire” to test its tangibility.

Also, the final Death Angel scene was handled with masterful care. Typically, we think of this portion of the Exodus tale as a severe end to the 10 plagues. Granted, it was truly awful, but DreamWorks paints it with a hint of mercy, as the angel slips into each Egyptian household like cold breeze and steals the breath of life from its firstborn boys (poetic justice for the Hebrew children slain years prior). It was a macabre yet peaceful end for the children. What we hear next is a cacophony not soon forgotten: the death wail of the mothers mourning their great loss. The experience left me quivering with the thought of such an event.

The morals of the stories are what differ between Prince and Pocahontas:

Who’s in Charge Here?

  • Hero relies on objective (supernatural) guidance.
  • Heroine focuses on subjective (natural) wisdom.

Perhaps the only significant point the Fundamentalists will take issue with Prince is its dealing with the nature of God. I heard that the producers had some early disagreements over the appropriate voice for the Almighty, even rumors that it could be feminine. Of course this would not stand with DreamWorks? team of spiritual advisors, since both Christianity and Judaism are patriarchal religions. Instead, DreamWorks came up with a clever middle ground to appease the humanist and deist alike. Moses hears his own voice when God speaks to him (voiced by Val Kilmer). So take it for what it?s worth, but I think that this could be understood in two possible ways.

The first is that obviously the voice of Jehovah is indeed masculine and the Fundamentalists are happy. The second understanding is more subtle, but equally possible. The voice being the same as Moses? own could imply that the manifestation of God being presented here was really just a figment of Moses? potential and accomplishment, his personal worth. The theme of self-affirmation is later solidified in the song entitled “When you believe,” where we learn that “There can be miracles / When you believe.”

However, I believe that this interpretation is probably outweighed by the very evident supernatural events portrayed in the remainder of the film, none of which can be directly attributed to man or Moses. The credit is safely ascribed to God, with the emphasis on Moses as merely a vehicle. The difference is doctrinal (i.e., is belief alone responsible for supernatural events?).

There’s a stark contrast between Moses following his God and Pocahontas listening to her instinct. Disney’s Pocahontas learned to rely on herself for her own guidance, a very popular opinion these days. It discounts the need for any Higher Power entirely, save the wise council of a friendly old tree. Pocahontas consults Grandmother Willow for advice regarding life, love, and direction. Grandmother Willow is nothing more than an inanimate old cedar but becomes a wizened sage around Pocahontas, as if fresh from Druid lore. All this is a painfully obvious allusion to New Age spirit guides, as Grandmother Willow assures Pocahontas, “All around are spirits. Listen, they will guide you.” Pocahontas soon learns that these spirits of the air, water, and land are really all inside her and all she must do is learn to tap into that potential.

Sheesh. What was intended as feminist empowerment became muddy spiritism. To their credit, Disney got their act together with a toned-down, yet strong female character in the delightful Mulan.

Spirit guides aside, there’s a whole lot of quasi-Gaianism going on in Pocahontas. The clairvoyant village witchdoctor foresees the coming Englishmen as ravenous wolves, consuming everything, wanting only to pillage and mine for gold. Captain John Smith means well; he just wants to bring civilization to the “savages” by setting up an infrastructure of roads, construction, and community. But he learns from Pocahontas that the Indians’ way of life — pure agrarian utopia — is better than the Englishmen’s imperialism, since their technology has corrupted them. Apparently, it does takes a village…

But in all fairness, it’s pretty clear from whose perspective we are watching this colonization. It’s very hard to be objective, since all that is American today is a direct result of the European usurpation of America from the natives. It’s almost futile now to criticize those explorers and settlers (Columbus, Jamestown, etc.) for their actions; nearly all of us today are descendants of that confiscation. In hindsight, we can only hope to have learned from the affair, but I’m convinced that merely condemning it won’t accomplish anything.

Stories aside, Disney got some solid competition from DreamWorks in the animation department. Prince made some new breakthroughs for the industry with its use of 3D computer imaging meshed with 2D paintings. For a long time, Disney reigned as the children’s animation king; now 20th Century Fox (Anastasia), Warner Brothers (upcoming The King and I), and now DreamWorks (also for their computer animated Antz which competed with Disney’s Toy Story and A Bug’s Life) have all raised the bar.

Disney is going to have to learn sooner or later that it takes more than a catchy tune and bigger-than-life animation to win a crowd. They’ve gotta get their stories straight too.

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