Pocahontas co-director Eric Goldberg has revealed that actor, presenter and writer Stephen Fry almost played a big role in the 1995 animated Disney movie – and it’s absolutely not the one you think that it is.
Released during what has been dubbed the ‘Disney Renaissance’ period, which roughly stretches from The Little Mermaid’s massive success in 1989 through to Tarzan a decade later, Pocahontas contains a lot of popular animal sidekicks.
This type of role is something of a speciality of the studio when you think of the impact of beloved characters like Aladdin’s Genie (who Goldberg animated), Timon and Pumba from The Lion King and Mushu in Mulan.
For Pocahontas, there is the trio made up of hummingbird Flit and greedy raccoon Meeko – who are Pocahontas’s pals – and then evil Governor Ratcliffe’s spoiled pug Percy.
However, it almost looked – and sounded – very different, with Goldberg confirming that Meeko was actually a replacement for the original animal character planned, a turkey.
And, as previously speculated, he was going to be voiced by American comedian and actor John Candy.
‘There was going to be a turkey and his name was Redfeather, and this is back when we thought the animal characters were going to have vocals,’ Goldberg told Metro.co.uk in an interview for the D100 celebrations, marking 100 years of the Walt Disney Company.
‘We had wanted John Candy to be the voice of Redfeather, and Nick Ranieri, who eventually went on to animate Meeko, he did a Redfeather test to a John Candy track that worked really, really well.’
Tragically, Uncle Buck and Trains, Planes & Automobiles star Candy died in March 1994 at the age of just 43, before this could come to fruition.
‘Sadly, John Candy passed away, and, at the same time, we felt given the tone of the film Pocahontas, maybe it’s better not to have the animal characters talk. So, we made them all pantomime and that is the small and sad story of Redfeather.’
While voice casting was still ongoing however, Goldberg recalled having his sights set firmly on Blackadder actor and comedian Stephen Fry for one of the other sidekick roles.
‘I actually went to London to record some of my favourite comedians over there as possible voices for the character of Percy. I wanted Stephen Fry – and he put down a great track,’ he revealed.
In fact, there is evidence of both Fry and Candy’s performances, alongside but it’s been buried away for years.
‘Chris Buck, who is now known as the director of the Frozen films, animated Percy and Nick Ranieri animated Redfeather to the John Candy and Stephen Fry tracks.
‘The test actually appears on the laser disc and hasn’t been seen since, but it was a really great – John Candy’s mouthing off, and Stephen Fry is like, “Hmm, yes, thank you very much, I’ll see you later.”
‘Very, very underplayed,’ Goldberg remembered.
Fry has since voiced an iconic Disney character when he supplied his dulcet tones to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, to play the Cheshire Cat, as well as its 2016 sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Legendary Disney animator Goldberg, who was also supervising animator for Phil in Hercules and Louis from The Princess and the Frog, actually sat in the director’s chair for the first time at Disney for Pocahontas, alongside Mike Gabriel.
While he wished he could have been more involved in animating himself, he was fully immersed in the process still.
‘When you’re a director on one of these films, you oversee everything – the layout, the character design, the art direction, the animation, the clean-up, the effects animation – the big picture.
‘Mike Gabriel and I split our duties on that: I was in charge of animation and clean-up, he was in charge of layout and art direction, and we met in the middle all the time in terms of seeing each other’s work. So, it’s not that I was removed from the animators. In fact, I was secretly jealous that I didn’t get to animate more on it!’
One of the scenes he did do animation work for was the sequence depicting Chief Powhatan’s tribe readying themselves for war with the English settlers of the Jamestown colony.
‘We had a Native American dance consultant come in and I watched him as we shot him in live action and did the animation based on his movements of the Native Americans getting ready for war. I was there and I was noting the steps and the arm movements that he was doing, and I put that in the movie.’
Despite Disney rebooting many of its popular films via live-action remakes in recent years, including The Little Mermaid earlier this year, and Snow White in 2024, it’s unlikely Pocahontas will receive similar treatment.
Although it won two Oscars, for best score and best song for Colours of the Wind, Pocahontas was overshadowed by its Disney stablemate The Lion King that year.
Its very loose adaptation of the real-life history of its characters has also previously been criticised by the Powhatan Renape Nation, with Chief Roy Crazy Horse Johnson claiming it ‘distorts history beyond recognition’.
Disney went ahead with a straight-to-video sequel in 1998, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, which wrapped up its glossed-over history of the Native American heroine before her death aged 21, but composer Alan Menken also voiced his doubts on the topic of a potential Pocahontas ‘reimagining’ too.
‘I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to do Pocahontas, I think that story is going to be difficult. With modern sensibilities, it’d be hard – you’re going to offend somebody – so I don’t know,’ he told Digital Spy.
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