Pocahontas is one of the most historically inaccurate movies ever made. Which is why its been unfairly labeled the weakest addition in the Disney Renaissance. Despite being just as good in terms of memorable characters, beautiful animation, and the best original songs Hollywood had to offer. The biggest difference was Disney’s choice to adapate a real life historical figure for the first (and only) time in Walt Disney animation. The idea came at Thanksgiving when it’s director wanted to make a historical western. The life of Pocahontas was chosen instead for its potential as another Best Picture candidate. The thirty-third Disney project Pocahontas was given a more serious tone and animators seriously thought it would be superior to The Lion King.
Pocahontas is far from a proper history lesson. The real Pocahontas was at least 10 years old when she first met the grown up John Smith. So there was clearly never a Romeo and Juliet romance going on between them. Further Disneyfied omissions included ignoring Pocahontas’ later capture by colonists, marriage to John Rolfe, and immigration into English society. Yet, Disney still made an effort to cast and collaborate with Native Americans for the sake of authenticity. That’s why it’s better to appreciate Pocahontas as a simple lesson in the acceptance of other cultures (that just happens to use the names of real life people)…
Pocahontas was released 15 days after I was born in 1995. Making it the first Disney movie released in my lifetime. It’s why I’ve always felt a personal attachment to Pocahontas. Of course it helps to be part Native American. My brother and I watched Pocahontas a fair number of times on VHS. It’s lesser emphasis on comedy was definitely different. That’s why there are no wacky talking animals or over-the-top sidekicks. Any humor is subtle by comparison. Pocahontas accurately opens in 1607 London, England. We follow the fictionalized sea voyage of the Virginia Company on their way to colonize the New World. John Smith is portrayed as more of a dashing, if misinformed adventurer with long blonde hair and rugged good looks. Rather than a harsh authoritarian, this Disney Prince version is suited for Mel Gibson.
Most of the settlers are interchangeable except for Thomas. A young settler who looks up to John that I was shocked to learn was voiced by Christian Bale. The real Captain of the the Susan Constant was Christopher Newport, but he was changed to Governor Ratcliffe. A different colonist Captain with a hand in Jamestown. His harsher sounding name is why he was chosen as villain. Governor Ratcliffe’s greed for gold, bigotry against natives, and hate-mongering make him a particularly despicable Disney villain. Disney mainstay David Ogden Stiers does double duty as the radically different Ratcliffe and his effeminate manservant Wiggins. As the settlers begin taking the land and mining for gold, we experience the vastly different culture of the Powhatan tribe.
Then we say “Wingapo” to Pocahontas. The very first “woman of color” to headline a Disney animated movie. Since Jasmine was only a supporting player in Aladdin. Pocahontas is the Native American daughter of Chief Powhatan. So that qualifies her as a Disney Princess. Unlike her real life counterpart, Pocahontas is made to look like a gorgeous supermodel. Complete with long flowing hair, tribal tattoo, her mother’s necklace, and traditional native garment. This older version of Pocahontas is a free spirited risk taker who loves her culture and goes where the wind takes her. Irene Bedard is a genuine Native American who breathes refreshing life into Pocahontas, but her singing voice Judy Kuhn shouldn’t be understated. The more realistic animal sidekicks are hungry raccoon Meeko and stubborn hummingbird Flit. As well as pampered pug Percy who belongs to Ratcliffe and fights with Meeko before redeeming himself. The antics don’t add much, but they’re fun distractions.
Pocahontas is a rare Disney Princess who has human friends. There’s her best friend Nakoma. As well as proud warrior Kocoum as her intended husband. Kekata is the shaman and Chief Powhatan is the tribe’s wise leader. He’s a caring father who just wants his daughter to choose a steady course. Except a dream seems to be spinning her in a different direction. The only fantastical element in Pocahontas is Grandmother Willow. A wise weeping willow voiced by Linda Hunt who leads Pocahontas to her destiny. Everything changes when Pocahontas & John Smith have their powerful first encounter. The winds help them to understand each other and they each learn about their respective cultures. Their conflicting ideologies clash at first, but Pocahontas helps John to better respect nature, the land, and people who are different from him.
John & Pocahontas hold a special place in my heart for being the first interracial Disney couple. Their romance is mature and sincere. It’s the only thing that can unite the warring colonists and natives. Which sadly falls apart when Thomas unintentionally shoots Kocoum. Radcliffe encourages hatred by going to war and Powhatan sees no other option himself. John is taken by the tribe where he is sentenced to death. The powerful image of Pocahontas bravely laying her body on John is recreated when she runs to stop the fighting. Ever the hatemonger, Radcliffe is arrested for taking a shot that John jumps in front of.
Unlike most Disney endings, Pocahontas proclaims her love for the wounded John, but they sadly part ways in the most hopeful way possible. Pocahontas deserves credit for tackling such grown up themes. However inaccurate it may be, the themes of peace over conflict and ending intolerance are things all kids should know. The harsh terms used by the colonists are necessary to get the message across. While the far less stylized character designs fit the realistic approach. The rest of the animation is just as mesmerizing as everything from its era. Still, the best reason to revisit Pocahontas is the music. Even in a polarizing production, everyone agrees the soundtrack is topnotch. It’s practically a non-stop musical throughout.
“The Virginia Company” and “Steady as the Beating Drum” are fine introductory songs for each side. “Mine Mine Mine” works well as an energetic Disney villain song about gold that gives John Smith a power solo. I just wish the tender love song “If I Never Knew You” was kept in. Grandmother Willow’s “Listen with Your Heart” is a quick song that helps at least. I know “Savages” is a controversial hate song, but neither side is right in their prejudice. Plus the beat is too infectious to right off completely. “Just Around the Riverbed” is a perfect “I want” song for Pocahontas that made her all the more inspirational. But the Oscar winning “Colors of the Wind” truly encapsulates everything Pocahontas stands for. I know all the words to the beautiful power ballad and appreciate nature all the more because of it. Pocahontas is an influential indigenous Disney portrayal that should be judged on its own merit.