Snow White may have blazed a trail for animation, but it took a while for Disney to acknowledge the potential for anchoring ambitious projects around female characters. It was 12 years before the studio would base another full-length picture on a heroine with the release of Cinderella in Beauty and the Beast came more than half a century after Snow White scored Disney seven miniature honorary Oscars at the Academy Awards, but it was only the sixth Disney film out of 32 to focus primarily on the story of a female character.
Pocahontas Animated by Charles Larson | BookSliced
The result was Pocahontas , a dramatic retelling of one of the earliest American stories about a Native American woman and her encounter with an English sailor named John Smith. It was also the first time the studio had produced a film about a real person. The film also seemed to embrace an environmentalist message, with Pocahontas showing Smith the absurdity of relentlessly taking things from the Earth instead of seeing its potential.
But 20 years later, its impact can be seen in the new wave of animated Disney films like Brave and Frozen , while Pocahontas remains a well-intentioned entry in the Disney canon. From through , Walt Disney Studios largely focused on stories about talking animals, from The Rescuers to The Great Mouse Detective , as well as Robin Hood , which reinvented the archetypal English characters as anthropomorphized foxes and bears.
After Jasmine in Aladdin , Pocahontas was the second "ethnic" Disney princesses, the first and only Native American one, and the first Disney princess to be based on an actual historical figure. Mulan became the second historically based "princess".
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The eight movies listed above were generated over a period of more than 60 years, so it's not surprising that the Disney representation of women evolved in that time.. In particular, the year gap between Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid , saw the transition from women characters as passive damsels in distress who spent a lot of time doing housework, to more independent, self-actualized women in keeping with the times.
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Aurora in Sleeping Beauty , while a quintessential damsel in distress, was exempt from doing housework, as the plot required her to sleep through most of the film. The three more modern princesses Ariel, Belle and Jasmine , while less domestic than their predecessors, also differed from the classic princesses in sporting a wide-eyed, cartoonish look, presumably aimed at appealing to children. With Pocahontas, the animators appeared eager to go in a slightly different direction.
According to one website, Screenrant. The two images below show two totally different preliminary ideas for the Pocahontas character. I should note, though, that I have not been able to verify the source of these images, so reader beware.
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Concept art for early imagining of Pocahontas according to Christy Box of Screenrant. Ultimately, however, the animators elected to abandon that idea and go for a more adult, realistic-looking character in keeping with the serious nature of the story, but one that would allow for a romance, conforming more to legend than to real life. As a starting point, the animators would have naturally looked at the only known real-life image of Pocahontas for ideas.
However, the Simon de Passe engraving clearly did not provide the inspiration they required. The English in had commissioned an image of Pocahontas that would emphasize her acceptance of English ways, so they dressed her according to the English fashion of the time. For Disney's purposes, the image had little to offer, and we might guess the animators shared the view of s John Chamberlain, that " Here is a fine picture of no fayre Lady. Likewise, the Disney animators do not seem to be on record as having been influenced by the William Ordway Partridge statue that stands in Jamestown, though arguably that conception of Pocahontas shares some features with the Disney version, if you ignore the vertical feather.
Glen Keane, the supervising animator of Pocahontas , related in an interview with writer Katie Steed that he had gone to Jamestown, Virginia to seek inspiration among the trees and streams there to try and imagine what it might be like for John Smith to stumble upon Pocahontas in a canoe for the first time. In Keane's telling, it was while he was standing in the woods when Shirley Little Dove [Custalow] and her sister, Debbie White Dove, emerged from behind some trees and introduced themselves, saying they were descendants of Pocahontas.
Keane said in the interview:. They were both beautiful, they had a nobility in the way they stood. All the way through the film, I had that photo on my desk there as a reminder of that. Because it was real, I was animating something that I believed. Amazingly, even the animator backstory has a Disney-like, fairy tale quality to it. Since it comes from Keane himself, it appears that one or both of the Custalow women really were early models for how Pocahontas might appear. A Pocahontas sketch right accompanies the article, but with no explanation, it's unclear if it's an actual Glen Keane concept drawing at an early stage of animation or just some random fan art thrown in to fill space on the page.
A photo of Debbie White Dove described as Devi in the Steed article is posted here to help readers imagine Keane's early encounter with the Custalows and how it may have resulted in a sketch. This photo was not in the Steed article, but cropped from a photo probably a screen capture from a Pocahontas documentary that appeared in The Log, Volume V, Issue 5 , SepOct Debbie White Dove. That was her calling in life.
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