I would like to preface this article by saying that I have thought long and hard about this and by no means is anything following this meant to offend any nation or institution. This is an article of pure opinion with a foundation of research and serious, sensitive contemplative thought. (Also, please note this article will only focus on Pocahontas and not the sequel as that lends for enough material to fill an entire novel.)
I was only 6 or 7 years old, and already in love with animation when my parents took me to the cinema for the first time. As we walked down the darkened isle to find our seats, an electric feeling of overwhelming excitement took me over. The Disney logo lit the screen and I was soon submerged in the story that I have now, many years later, come to love, and hate with a conflicting passion: Pocahantas. Having spent my childhood and adolescence romanticizing this film, and now my adulthood rationalizing and deciphering every inch of it, I am no closer to feeling resolved about it. I have, however, finally begun to articulate my mixed feelings about one of the most topical films Disney has ever released.
I come from a low income Mexican family, so the very first time I saw Pocahontas in theaters was nothing short of spell binding. After 6 years of watching cartoon characters that looked nothing like me, I finally caught a glimpse of what my story could actually look like. And at the time having a raccoon and hummingbird as best friends and running around in the forest was just perfect. Now I am 24 years old looking back and seeing all of the little things I missed, all of the things that have influenced so much of my identity complex. I have only had the opportunity to watch the film a handful of times since my initial mesmerizing viewing and having re-watched the film recently, after years of social activism, education, and story writing experience, I’ve begun to see what members of the Native American community have deemed as offensive.
But first, the Positive:
What I can say in the film’s defense is that it is a perfectly good story. The characters are conflicted, the musical lyrics are interesting and the animation is accomplished. Let’s face it, Disney helped push the boundaries of animation with this film (mostly because they could afford the budget)—those freaking dancing leaves! There is some really amazing imagery taken from historical accounts along with some interesting animation choices with the natural setting including the depiction of Grandmother Willow, and all of the scenic transitions in general.
That being said, there are a lot of things that Disney should have been more thoughtful about while producing the film. For one thing, when the Powhatan Nation learned that Disney was producing an animated film about one of their nation’s most prominent historical figures, they approached Disney in order to offer assistance in regards to the portrayal and story of Pocahontas. Disney, for whatever reason declined the offer, choosing to go with information and choices from their own research.
While I am a huge advocate of story adaptation, I am not an advocate for cultural misrepresentation (excluding satire), which is essentially what happened in this specific instance. While Disney felt that the film was “responsible, accurate, and respectful”, the Powhatan Nation felt that the film “distorts history beyond recognition”. After taking a look at the Powhatan Nation’s website, which discusses many of the film’s shortfalls, it is clear that while Disney had an artistic right to fictionalize the story, they should have also sought advice on how best to do so without loosing the Powhatan Nation’s interests or risk loosing their own artistic integrity. A compromise could have potentially been reached. However, by the same token, it can be argued that had Disney entertained the Powhatan Nation’s concerns, one thing would have lead to the next, and Disney would have never released the film they had set out to make.
The biggest complaint against Disney’s interpretation of Pocahontas is it’s laughable historical inaccuracy. While it is understood that Pocahontas is not a bio-pic, documentary or a strict translation of history, more attention should have been paid to the facts that matter the most in the story. As most people are aware, Pocahontas was actually 10 or 11 at the time she met John Smith. For me, personally, it is not her fictionalized age that I have a problem with, so much as how Disney decided to interpret the age they chose and how Pocahontas carried it. For one thing, Pocahontas comes off overly sexualized, with a disproportionate body type favoring the bust, while running around in a skimpy dress. It just isn’t practical, or flattering for the people she is supposed to represent whom have more to offer.
Although, Disney alone may not carry the fault for how Pocahontas’ character design took shape. If attention is paid to their past designs, one thing can be noted; Disney tends to reflect the trend of pop culture at the time the films are made. Pocahontas was made in 1995, and Baywatch was in high gear at that time. Snow White was released in 1937 and the princess is portrayed as a delicate little flower with very thin eyebrows – a sign of the times. Even the most recent Tangled has Repunzel portrayed as a spunky teenager with large eyes much like some of our current Hollywood royalty: Emma Stone, Mila Kunis, Mandy Moore and Anne Hathaway. Disney might have just been showing that they were hip with the times, but with so many years of experience they should understand by now that what they create is taken seriously and that children around the world look up to these characters. In other words, they should understand by now what responsible filmmaking is.
On another historical note, and this one is highly controversial, the pivotal scene that the entire movie is built around, might never have happened at all – and IF it did, it might have been part of a ceremony rather than an actual threat to John Smith’s life. Personally, while I understand why the Powhatan nation was upset at the use of the scene, I also see how instrumentally romantic the scene actually is. If it had not been used, what could have gone in it’s place as the climax to the story? I, for one, can not think of a thing. Without this scene, there is no film story.
Now, the part that I take largest offense to, is the fact that at the end of Pocahontas’ story, she does not get her happy ending. While the argument may be that this is the part of the history that should not be re-written, one can’t help but see this blaring piece of hypocrisy; Ariel in The Little Mermaid had a mortal fate in her original story, and Disney had no problem re-writing it so that she had a happy ending. So this begs the question; Why not Pocahontas?
Overall, I have to say that Pocahontas is not a bad film. On the surface it gives off a story of morals, love, and friendship. But it is the subliminal that I question to this day. After all, we as humans still process symbols, imagery, and none-verbal subtext just as much – if not more – as everything else. So while I will still watch this film, I will do so carefully, understanding that Pocahontas, much like most films, is not just something to be enjoyed on the surface; It is a film to be contemplated, and deciphered.
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