The minute Disney decided to adapt the Pocahontas tale for the big-screen, they had to expect problems. The story has become a romanticized examination of early intolerance and love transcending all that’s been critiqued ever since. Disney is definitely firing on all cylinders with the music by the amazing duo of Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz, but the plot completely falls apart for adults and will go over the heads of children. We also see the growing dependence on cutesy, mute animal side characters, as well as a shift in the appearance of Disney’s “princes.”
John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson) is an explorer with the Virginia Company. He’s headed to the “new world” to look for gold for the evil Governor Ratcliffe (voiced by David Ogden Stiers). Once the settlers arrive they immediately fear that the Native Americans will attack them, but when Smith meets the beautiful Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard) the two cultures will be forced to meet.
I’ll get the pros out-of-the-way before I discuss this problematic foray into Disney “history.” The songs are what keeps audiences engaged and able to brush aside the plot complications. Menken and Schwartz would become quite the team, and crafted incredibly forceful songs for movies that had iffy plots (we’ll see them next week during Hunchback of Notre Dame; they would also do Enchanted and Tangled). Their score is influenced by cliché Native American elements like drums and chanting. However, they assemble a score that shows the universality between the settlers and the natives in a way that both blends and separates each culture (listen to “Savages” as the prime example). It’s easy to understand why the score won the Academy Award, as well as “Colors of the Wind” for best original song. The latter song is a stirring ode to tolerance and love that may have corny, straw-Native American sentiments, but it still works.
Okay, so let’s discuss Pocahontas as a movie. John Smith’s account of his relationship with the Native American woman named Pocahontas, and his almost execution at her father’s hands, has been debated for centuries. It was revealed far later in his memoirs and the rumors of their romance has been debunked considering the girl’s age (she was about fourteen at the time). Of course, Hollywood has run with the story of forbidden love, regardless, and has created a few Pocahontas/John Smith movies (my personal favorite is Terence Malick‘s The New World). However, Disney had a burden on their hands from the first minute. The film starts by introducing John Smith, the bloodsucking Virginia Company, and all the other male characters within the first ten minutes of the movie. From the start, this isn’t Pocahontas’ story, but the story of Smith and crew learning to love the Indians; furthermore, this sets up the idea that John Smith is the true hero and the one the audience should identify with. The overall dilemma with Pocahontas is history itself. We all know what happened to the Native Americans, and even though this story tacks a happy ending on to events – the settlers and Natives overcome their mutual prejudices and coexist, meanwhile Pocahontas and John Smith have to separate – there’s no getting beyond the fact that the Native Americans would see decades of displacement, torment, and death. Ain’t no amount of love songs and funny animals going to overcome years of degradation. The movie makes it sound as if the Virginia Company, Ratcliffe specifically, were the only reason the Natives and the settlers never co-existed, which is laughably untrue.
Also, the film wants you to believe that both sides are prejudiced when the argument is clearly one-sided. The settlers arrive under the auspices that there’s gold. None of the white settlers can understand why the Native Americans are so hostile, and even Smith tells Pocahontas that they’re there to “civilize” the Natives. The entire reason for the Natives’ anger is summed up by side character Wiggins (also voiced by David Ogden Stiers): “Because we invaded their land and cut down their trees and dug up their earth?” Unfortunately, this is used as the punchline of a joke to show how narrow-minded Ratcliffe is. The movie never appropriately explores the settlers decimation of the Natives land, and by the end the plot has to force the Natives to be just as despicable as the settlers when their actions are justified! Settler Thomas (oddly enough voiced by New World actor Christian “Batman” Bale) ends up accidentally killing Pocahontas’ betrothed – who she hates because he’s “serious” and she’s uber-independent – which, in turn, causes the tribe to kidnap Smith, believing he’s the murderer. Again, how is it we’re meant to see the Native Americans in the same light as the settlers? During the “Savages” number, there’s a line that the settlers sing – “they’re different from us, which means they must be evil” – proving that because the Natives are a different race and have different beliefs they’re automatically horrible; when the Natives sing a similar line – “they’re not like you and me, which means they can’t be trusted” – there’s a completely different set of connotations. The Natives have watched these settlers take over their land, degrade their people, and shoot at them unprovoked, so they have proof there’s no trust; Ratcliffe already hated the Natives from the beginning!
Speaking of the love story; to say it’s contrived would be an understatement. Suffice it to say that Smith and Pocahontas overcome the language barrier by “listening to their heart.” Seriously, that’s how it’s solved. I think what irks me the most about Pocahontas is for all its attempts to be serious, everything feels silly. They’re Native Americans, not magicians and yet magic dominates their culture (oh, and being friends with every animal in existence, of course); there’s the Grandmother Willow character, various spirit animals, and the spirit of her dead mother? That one’s not explained particularly well. None of these magical elements do anything other than show up to illustrate how “in-tune” Pocahontas is with nature, and to show the stereotypical belief that Native Americans possess some type of magic. Why can’t Pocahontas talk to her friend Nakoma (voiced by Michelle St. John) instead of a magical talking tree? The same can be said for Pocahontas’ forest friends, Flit and Meeko. The original intent was to have them talk, but the animators dropped that to keep the film “serious” which is a crock. As the ’90s would progress, Disney continued to add in cuddly animal characters; I believe this is a blatant cash grab for plush toys, but I could be wrong. Here, almost every major character has an animal companion. Okay, it’s just Pocahontas and Ratcliffe, who has a dog named Percy. Of course, the group of animals play-act the intolerance playing out amongst the humans, but it only serves to pad the runtime.
The vocal cast is well done, although it’s funny to listen to Mel Gibson as the voice of Smith considering how we perceive him today. Speaking of Smith, take note of his appearance, especially when I discuss Hunchback next week. Disney’s early men were bland, brunette examples of the “tall, dark, and handsome” paradigm. With Smith and next week’s male, we see a shift to blonde Adonis who are dashing into the fray and find themselves seducing foreign women with their persistence. It is frustrating to watch the script force you to like John Smith through his continued manipulation of Pocahontas; in one scene he refuses to let her leave until she agrees with him and reveals her name!
I don’t hate Pocahontas; it’s a perfectly serviceable presentation of a story that’s become romanticized and equivocal with our interactions with Native Americans. The songs are beautiful, and help to spread the message of tolerance. The script is just filled with problems that couldn’t really be transcended or explicated properly for a children’s film. As I mentioned in my intro, the movie’s broader themes will sail over kids’ heads and irritate adults.
NEXT WEEK: Victor Hugo receives the Disney treatment with The Hunchback of Notre Dame!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.