Fifteen years ago when Walt Disney’s Pocahontas was released, it was the Princess movie everyone loved to hate: feminists were appalled by the buxom babe makeover of the title protagonist, who was in fact only a little girl when John Smith was part of the Jamestowne settlement. Conservatives saw a disturbing anti-growth environmental message with the simplistic contrast of ecologically harmonious Indian villages versus rapacious English despoilers of the North American environment. Historians were appalled that John Smith’s self-serving fictions were spun once again into a historical romance with Pocahontas.
I was in graduate school in 1995 when the movie was first released, and since I didn’t have any young children in my life, I never got around to watching it until about five years ago. I like the movie a lot, and find a lot of the criticism of the movie at the time it was released too literal-minded. I’ve even used clips of it to illustrate points I want to make in my undergraduate classes at both the introductory level and in upper-division classes. The movie’s distortions are mostly in the service of fitting the Pocahontas legend into the Disney Princess mold–for example, the romance with Smith (we have to have a handsome prince, right?), the rebellion against her father (think about the wicked Queen or stepmothers, or King Triton in The Little Mermaid), the supernatural Mother Willow (fairy godmother, anyone?) and the adorably mischievous raccoon and hummingbird companions (Snow White’s forest friends, or the mice in Cinderella). And although Pocahontas looks like she might have had breast implants, her costume is no more revealing than Ariel’s clamshell bra.
In fact, when viewed against the other Disney Princess movies, the 80s and 90s versions–particularly Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid–what strikes me is that everyone has a (yes) cartoonishly improbable body. Many of the women have enormous canteloupe boobs atop stick bodies–a body type not found in nature, needless to say–and the men look like they’re all on steroids. Seriously–Disney’s John Smith looks like Mark McGwire. I’m willing to believe that the Indian men were reasonably buff, but there’s no way that the hapless Jamestowne settlers all had Barry Bonds-like muscles. (They were starving!) But at least the 1980s and 90s Princesses are permitted to be more independent and courageous than the drippy Snow White of 1937 or the oddly passive Cinderella of 1950: Ariel rescues the mulleted Prince Eric from drowning, Pocahontas provides valuable information to John Smith, Belle loves reading more than anything and swoons when she sees the Beast’s library, and Mulan transvests to go to war as a soldier.
In any case–physical and historical distortions nothwithstanding, here’s what I like about Pocahontas:
- In its portrayal of the Powhatan Indians and the English, it emphasizes the similarities among the cultures rather than the differences. This is a key point in a lot of the new scholarship on Anglo-Indian relations. (See for example “Savages,” below.)
- The eco-messaging is far too simplistic, but I think the portrayal of English rapacity isn’t overdone at all for the early Virginia settlers. My favorite song and dance number is the “Mine, mine, mine” number, below.
- In the end, Smith is injured and returns to England–he doesn’t marry Pocahontas in the movie. (There was a pretty abysmal follow-up produced a few years later, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New Word, with vastly inferior production values, that portrays her marriage to John Rolfe and her trip to England. Utterly forgettable compared to the original!)
- The songs, choreography, and drawings are brilliant. And what more do we really want to get out of a Disney Princess movie? I don’t think David Ogden Stiers ever got the credit he deserved for his zesty portrayal of the bad English guy Ratcliffe.