WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT DISNEY'S Pocahontas, they usually mention the animation, the historical accuracy—or the aerobicized look of the Native American heroine. Few focus on the fact that early in the movie Captain John Smith stops talking and Mel Gibson—who provides the voice of the 17th-century English explorer—suddenly sings.
It's a remarkable moment for several reasons. First, Disney believes in division of labor. In Aladdin and The Lion King, one performer did the speaking and another the singing for most of the main parts. Then there is the matter of Gibson's crooning credentials: he has none—except for a few long-ago lessons and an a cappella rendition of "Amazing Grace" in 1994's Maverick.
So what made the actor think he could sing his way onto the soundtrack? A sheer lack of sensitivity about his vocal skills. "I'm a confirmed kind of shower singer," Gibson, 39, has said. "I thought, what the heck."
Before laying down his two Pocahontas tracks—including the duet "Mine Mine Mine," with David Ogden Stiers, as Governor Ratcliffe—Gibson worked with a Disney-assigned vocal coach. The actual recording session lasted 4½ hours, and before it was over, Pocahontas producer James Pentecost knew Gibson could "carry a tune" and display "natural ability in terms of rhythm."
Faint-sounding praise, but Gibson got the gig. And, subsequently, praise from veteran vocalists. "He sounded very professional," says Marni Nixon, 66, who sang for Natalie Wood in 1961's West Side Story and for Audrey Hepburn in 1964''s My Fair Lady. "His voice sounds light and lyrical, which is important for a record." Still, Gibson has said he is contemplating no career moves: "I wouldn't try to make a living at it."