Pocahontas needed an ethnic look -- The cartoon can thank archival drawings, an art student, and Christy Turlington for her good looks
”Disney’s been in such a — I don’t want to say a ‘rut,”’ says Glen Keane, supervising animator for the character of Pocahontas. ”But we’ve been doing mainly Caucasian faces.” Pocahontas was designed to be different. As company press releases proudly point out, Disney’s 33rd full-length animated feature is the ”first to be inspired by a real-life figure.” And Poca honchos knew that the famous daughter of a 17th-century Powhatan chief needed more dignity than flutter-eyed females like The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel. After all, at 13 the girl helped make peace between the Jamestown colonists and her nation. ”You have to approach it carefully,” Keane says. ”The Disney version becomes the definitive version. She is a hero like we’ve never had before.”
So where did animators turn to create their leading lady? To archival drawings, a present-day Powhatan, a pretty art student of Filipino descent — and supermodel Christy Turlington.
Keane’s team focused on what he calls Mongolian features and certain intangibles. Then-Disney Studios head Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mandate was to render ”the finest creature the human race has to offer.” In Shirley Little Dove Custolow the filmmakers found not only a regal mien (and a chief’s daughter) but also a historian — all for a reported $500 consulting fee (Custolow now says the movie got history wrong, maintaining there was no romance between Pocahontas and John Smith). Turlington came free via the fashion pages. Dyna Taylor, 21, a senior at the California Institute of the Arts, got about $200 for four modeling sessions. ”I work across from a Disney Store,” says Taylor, who clerks at a mall. ”When they show the promos, certain expressions are really familiar.” It’s a small world after all.
Pocahontas, the person
English artists drew the Powhatan charmer 380 years ago, but Disney’s Keane got Virginia’s first celebrity right: ”She looked like someone was trying to make her white.”
Shirley Little Dove Custolow
Keane worked from photos of the Powhatan historian. ”There was a dignity in her,” he says. Custolow balks: ”I wish they would take the name Pocahontas off that movie,” she told The Washington Post.
The Valencia, Calif., college student, who’s of Filipino descent, was a live model. ”I’m kind of irritated becasue i didn’t get any recognition, and it’s my face,” she says. Admits Keane, ”She had a big impact” on the result.
Searching magazines for inspiration, Keane realized most of his clippings were of the supermodel. Animators often referred to her image. ”This is the first we’ve heard about it,” says her rep.
Pocahontas, the character
”We’re doing a mature love story here, and we’ve got to draw her as such. She has to be sexy,” says Keane, who likens her to a tribal Eve. ”This is a Disney version. This is not a documentary.”