Despite being relatively successful in theaters and winning a number of awards, Pocahontas is not a terribly popular Disney movie. Critics call the historical inaccuracies everything from misleading to full-on racist, and others are horrified that the originally ten-year-old heroine is fully grown and quite the looker. Many worried that the impressionable young audience would take the movie as fact; in my experience, learning that the movie was based on real events drove girls to independently research colonial American history. Given that most young girls will not know the historical context before seeing the film, however, I will be looking at the movie as a stand-alone feature.
While I grew up watching Disney movies on VHS, Pocahontas was one of the first movies released in theaters that I was able to debate about. The conversations I had with friends over the validity of the titular character’s choices were probably not terribly advanced, but the fact that we were old enough to think critically means a crisper recollection of our reactions to Pocahontas as a role model.
In Disney’s version of the story, adventurer John Smith journeys to a mysterious New World. He spends his time on the ship being heroic and talking about how many natives he’ll murder, winning the admiration of his shipmates. Governor Ratcliffe, the totally-not-evil leader of the voyage, notices this comradery, and bemoans his unpopularity.
On the shores of this suspiciously mall-free New World, the local tribe’s Chief Powhatan has returned from battle. He promises the hand of his daughter Pocahontas to his finest warrior, Kocoum. Pocahontas isn’t terribly thrilled about this arrangement, preferring the freedom of adventure to a steady life with an overly serious husband. She takes a canoe ride to discuss this dilemma with a tree, and notices the sails of the colonists getting closer to land. She decides to investigate.
As soon as they get ashore, the Englishmen set about singing, digging, and blowing up trees. Pocahontas sees John Smith break away from the pack to go adventuring, and decides to stalk him. After a while, Smith notices that he’s being followed and confronts Pocahontas. After some confusion, Pocahontas learns Magic English, and the two teach each other about their cultures. Pocahontas is excited to hear about the outside world, and Smith realizes that he’s quite the tool.
The tribe and the colonists don’t get on nearly as well as Smith and Pocahontas. The natives’ mission to observe the newcomers is mistaken for an ambush, and the colonists are convinced that the natives are hiding gold and precious gems. Pocahontas and Smith continue to see one another, but both have to hide their relationship from their people. One night, they sneak off to make out in the forest, but both are followed. Kocoum sees Pocahontas kissing another dude and attacks, and Smith’s follower shoots Kocoum for attacking. The Englishman rushes off, and natives take Smith back to their village to be killed in the morning.
Ratcliffe seizes on Smith’s popularity to encourage the men to wage war, and the tribe takes the murder of their best warrior as a chance to get rid of their unwelcome visitors. The colonists march to the site of Smith’s execution, but Pocahontas refuses to let Smith die. Ratcliffe attempts to shoot Powhatan to avoid making peace, but Smith takes the bullet and strengthens the resolve of both sides. Smith must go back to England for medical treatment and invites Pocahontas to come with him, but she decides to stay with her people.
Let’s first address the accuracy issue of the whole movie. No, it’s not accurate. I remember hearing so when I was a kid and looking up what really happened. Many other people my age looked up the real story, too, and we all talked about the differences between fact and fiction together, which was pretty advanced discussion for children in the first grade. While Disney may not have kept the story accurate, they certainly did a good job at creating a likeable female character. I remember looking up Pocahontas in a book, excited to read about her wonderful adventures and tearful reunion with John Smith, and the feelings of disappointment when I found out what her life was really like. The sequel three years later just made it worse. My friends and I quietly ignored the findings of our research while playing, vastly preferring the fantasy version.
One of the other major complaints about the movie was making Pocahontas into a fully-grown sex symbol. Interestingly, this was one of the first movies that made me upset about my appearance. It wasn’t that the main character looked like a swimsuit model, which I didn’t notice at all until I was much older. No, I was upset that my hair wasn’t that long. Way to make me feel bad about myself, Disney.
Every princess movie ends with the hero and heroine being together forever, but Pocahontas does away with that one. I’m pretty sure historians would have an aneurysm if Disney had gone for that ending, of course, but it still made an impact on me as a kid. Much like Odette not wanting to marry Derek in The Swan Princess, Pocahontas’ decision to stay with her people was very confusing to me as a child. Clearly, everyone who was in love spent the rest of their lives together, so why didn’t she immediately go away with him? Instead of the usual ending of a princess movie, Pocahontas shows devotion to her lover while ultimately choosing her family.
Pocahontas herself is an interesting character, and grabs the attention of younger audiences. She has all the spirit of adventure that Ariel does with less of the daddy issues, and her absolute lack of fear isn’t seen often in female characters. Her likeability makes her decision of romantic independence all the more powerful.
This may seem a little far-fetched, but I grew up in Hawaii and people did this all the time. Did you know that Pocahontas goes over waterfalls three times in this movie? It’s ridiculous! That is far too many times to go over waterfalls! I mean, the first time we meet Pocahontas, she jumps off a waterfall to save some time, and then does so again during two more songs. That’s very unsafe behavior for a role model!
Pocahontas and John Smith have the super-quick few day romance going on, but their attraction is understandable. Both have a taste for adventure and danger, and both are interested in new worlds and other cultures. They seem like they’d get along well enough. History disagrees, of course, but in the context of the movie alone, they seem okay. Pocahontas saves John Smith instead of the other way around, which is a refreshing change of pace. It seems like it would be a good match overall, but it just feels like there’s something missing. Maybe it’s knowing the real story, but it just doesn’t feel quite right to see them together.
While the historical accuracy and racial matters may be up for debate, Pocahontas shows an interesting female character choosing family over romance, and the message that a man isn’t everything is certainly a good one for young women to hear.