I maintain that the Disney movie Pocahontas is an underrated masterpiece, but I think part of the reason for said underrated status is that so many people saw the “Colors of the Wind” sequence of the film out of context as a music video without actually seeing the film as a whole. On its own, the song can make it seem like the movie’s message is about how much wiser and closer to nature the Native Americans are than the White man (in other words, a variation on the same ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ message found in films like Ferngully), which would be condescending to both races if it were actually the message of the film. In reality, the film is about two different cultures that have to understand each other; the audience is encouraged to sympathize with characters from both sides, and responsibility for the conflict is more evenly divided (note that on the climactic song “Savages”, both sides are singing about their hatred and xenophobia). While this is undeniably a ravishing song, releasing it as a standalone music video did a lot of harm to the movie’s reputation, and this is where Vanessa Williams’s Pop cover actually improves upon the original, at least out of context. Judy Kuhn is arguably the better singer of the two, but Williams’ evocative, almost mystical delivery is much easier to take on its own than Kuhn’s ultra-earnest near-harangue, which, while it makes perfect sense in the actual scene in the film, can come off as pretentious and self-righteous when divorced from the situation that leads to it dramatically.
Verdict: The Judy Kuhn version is glorious, but it comes off much better if you’ve seen the film. If you haven’t, the Williams pop cover is a much better introduction.