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  • Composed by Alan Menken
  • Walt Disney Records / 1995 / 56:12

Disney released three animations in 1995; The Lion King and Toy Story are both magnificent, just about as fine as animated films could be.  The other release was Pocahontas, not on nearly such a high level (though there is certainly no shame in that).  It was the company’s first stab at making a film about a true historical event, though historical fact didn’t trouble the screenwriters too much.  That said, some of the criticism of the film was a little over the top – to expect an animated film aimed at young children to tell a story as complicated as this one in anything other than a one-dimensional way was, I feel, rather unreasonable, and the film makes a decent enough stab at telling the story.  Far more worthy of criticism, for me, were the animation, which was pretty awful at times (though strangely impressive and stylised during the song sequences) and the poor central villain.

This was Alan Menken’s fourth Disney animation, and I suspect the most difficult one he’d faced up to that point (it’s a very unusual topic on which to base a musical) so it’s to his credit that the music turned out as well as it did.  For sure, it doesn’t reach the dizzy heights of Beauty and the Beast or The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which was to be his next one) – but frankly, what does?  It’s still wonderfully creative and imaginative.  Sadly, his regular lyricist Howard Ashman had passed away and so instead he turned to Stephen Schwartz, who is not nearly on the same level, and some of the sloppy, predictable lyrics do far more to enforce the criticism of the film for being too simplistic and PC than anything in the screenplay.

Having said that, Menken’s class ensures that the best songs simply soar with beautiful melody regardless.  The best of them, “Colours of the Wind”, is one of the composer’s most beautiful compositions, a gorgeous piece which deservedly won an Oscar (though it’s far, far better in the film version sung by Judy Kuhn than the obligatory pop version, by Vanessa Williams).  Another fine song for Kuhn is the similarly-beautiful “Just Around the Riverbend”, performed with grace; again, it’s a breathless, seemingly effortlessly moving piece.  Bizarrely, a duet between Kuhn and Mel Gibson, “If I Never Knew You”, was dropped from the film for its theatrical release, despite being one of the film’s most powerful parts, though it’s been restored for the DVD.  Sadly, it’s not been released on CD, but we do get a pop arrangement of the song, sung by Jon Secada and Shanice.  “Steady as the Beating Drum”, with its faux-Indian percussion and chanting, is another fine song; and there’s more soaring beauty in the brief “Listen With Your Heart”.  The most dramatic songs, “Mine, Mine, Mine” and “Savages” feature fine music but, sadly, inferior lyrics; they’re still enjoyable enough.

As usual, Menken’s Oscar win for Best Song was accompanied by a win for Best Score.  In the film, the score for Pocahontas works well enough, featuring many interpolations of the tunes from the songs (particularly, ironically, “If I Never Knew You”) but it doesn’t fare quite so well on the album.  The more dramatic sections, such as the tumultuous “Ship at Sea”, beautiful “I’ll Never See Him Again” and “Finale” or dramatic “Council Meeting” and “Execution” are fine, but the comic interludes aren’t nearly so impressive here.  Still, it’s an impressive enough package, and the musical quality of the songs ensures it’s another resounding success for Menken.  ****

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