Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to make inaccurate films
This week marks halfway through The Renaissance, and we are up to Pocahontas, Disney’s take on the story of real-life young Native American woman and what happens when English colonizers appear on the shores of her land.
Before I get into my usual spiel on how the movie came about, I want to first explain the true story of Pocahontas. She was the daughter of the Chief Powhatan, who ruled over Tsenacommacah. Pocahontas was said to have visited the colonists and did know the real John Smith, although unlike the movie he was an adult while she was a child. John Smith was captured briefly by the Powhatans in 1607 and in his early accounts, Smith does not mention Pocahontas being there. However, years later, he started telling people that he was nearly killed and Pocahontas saved him, though some historians are dubious of that. In 1613, during a war between the Native Americans and colonists Pocahontas was captured. While in captivity she was baptized and given the “Christian name Rebecca”. There are some who believe that Pocahontas was indeed married to Kocoum, and even that they had a daughter, though according to Wikipedia it’s “been widely debated among scholars for centuries”. It’s very hard to be sure about much of what has been written about that time as most of it was written by the British settlers who were of course biased. During her time in captivity she met John Rolfe and they were married in 1614 (historians estimate that Pocahontas was around 18 at the time; Rolfe was 29). They had a son named Thomas and their marriage actually caused peace between the Native American tribes and the colonists so that’s nice, I suppose. In 1616 the Virginia Company brought Pocahontas and John Rolfe back to England to showcase the success of the colonization and how the Native Americans could be “tamed” – gross! Pocahontas was presented as a princess by the Virginia Company. She went to social events and even met the King. There are some claims that she was treated well by London society, while others say she was treated “as a curiosity”, and again, it’s hard to say how much of any account is true. Unfortunately, while on her way back to Virginia with John Rolfe, Pocahontas became sick and passed away at the age of 21. How she became ill is unknown. She was buried at a church in Kent, England, where there is a statue of her today. I find it very sad that not only did she die so young, but she wasn’t even able to get back home.
Disney’s Pocahontas journey began in the early ’90s when Disney director Mike Gabriel pitched to the studio a film following Pocahontas being torn between her tribe and the British settler she’s fallen in love with. At this time, Peter Schneider had been wanting to make a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, so he was all in on the “starcrossed lovers” story. After Beauty and the Beast received a best picture nomination, Jeffrey Katzenberg was like “Let’s do that again!” and strove to infuse Pocahontas with the elements he thought were successful in the former. This is why Pocahontas was aged up: he wanted to portray a serious, more mature romance. He also had the animals to be mute and the humor to be lower-key and “winsome”, according to Tom Sito, the Head of Story. When I think of what makes Beauty and the Beast one of my favorite Disney movies, mature romance and mute animals aren’t what come to mind, so I’m not sure where my dude was going with this but I’m certainly not an executive of a major studio, so, what do I know? Apparently, executives often tried to interfere with the animators concepts, trying to cut down on various gags.
I’m sure this goes without saying, but Pocahontas is highly fictionalized – I mean, it includes magic translation powers. What was surprising to me was that Disney did consult members of a Native American tribe, as well as historians. The various consultants were used for historical and cultural accuracy. When seeing the creative license the team was taking in crafting the story, one of the Native American consultants actually said she regretted working on the project. One of the directors of the film, Mike Gabriel, said that the real story of Pocahontas and her husband “was too complicated and violent for a youthful audience” so they instead paired with John Smith, whose character they changed from history as he was in reality “not likeable.” Glen Keane at one point explained that they aged Pocahontas up to be “socially responsible.” John Ratcliffe was a real person, though several different captains influenced the character. Apparently one of those captains, Edward Wingfield, had known beef with John Smith, but the writing team thought Ratcliffe sounded more like a villain name. You can see how seriously they took their historical depiction.
For the singing voice of Pocahontas, Judy Kuhn was cast, and Irene Bedard was chosen to do the rest of the dialogue. Mel Gibson was cast as John Smith, Christian Bale has a small role as Thomas, one of the English colonists, and David Ogden Stiers was cast as Governor Ratcliffe.
Alan Menken was brought back to do the music, but not Tim Rice, who had collaborated with him on Aladdin. Instead, Menken worked with Broadway writer and composer Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the music for Wicked! (and a bunch of other musicals, tbh, but Wicked is the only one I like). Schwartz did his due diligence when writing, researching Jamestown as well as “English sea shanties”. And when Disney executives wanted to cut “Just Around the Riverbend”, Schwartz and Menken went to bat to keep it in. “Colors of the Wind” won Best Original Song at the Oscars and Golden Globes, and it won Best Song Written for a Motion Picture at the Grammys.
Pocahontas had a limited release at first, and wound up breaking the record set by The Lion King as the highest-grossing opening weekend for a film that was released on less than fifty screens. That record still stands today. Overall, the film wound up being the fourth highest grossing film of 1995, and earned a considerably less amount than it’s Disney predecessor. Review wise, it received mixed responses. Roger Ebert said he thought it was the worst of the Renaissance films so far. Gene Siskel praised the film for being “thoughtful” and “beautifully drawn”, and for “sending powerful images to children” and having a “life-goes-on ending.” Other reviewers criticized the lack of humor and cute animals, as well as recycling too many tropes from past Disney movies as well as West Side Story. And while some praised the film for depicting the colonists accurately in terms of greed, others criticized it for changing history and depicting harmful stereotypes. Powhatan Renape Nation Chief Roy Crazy Horse said that the movie “distorts history beyond recognition”.
Still, the film did get a direct-to-video sequel about Pocahontas’ journey to England. Pocahontas is available for meeting visitors in Animal Kingdom in Orlando, though it is hard to find much else from the movie around the parks and she is featured in Fantasmic!, the nighttime show in both Disneyland (Anaheim) and Hollywood Studios (Orlando). “Just Around the Riverbend” is featured in the World of Color show at California Adventure in Anaheim.
Pocahontas was one of my least watched Renaissance movies as a kid – I think I found it to be a little too serious. And while I think that the music and animation are both gorgeous, as an adult it is hard to look past the historical inaccuracies. Still, it’s next up on the list, so here I go, so join me as I follow the arrow of the movie list!
My Thoughts on Pocahontas:
- I’m not quite sure why Disney made this movie the way they did, I suppose I’ll learn more when I eventually do research for the blog post. But, why tell the story of a teenage Pocahontas when she was a real person and a child? Why not create a movie about the real Pocahontas or a fictional teenage Native American?
- British Exploration hero John Smith has a strong American accent….
- Oh no! Young Christian Bale!
- Fun fact: Christian Bale did NOT provide his voice alone for this, he’s just THAT GOOD at changing his appearance for a character that he was able to turn into a cartoon
- Wow those fellow sailors are totally out for themselves
- Cogsworth as the villain is strange to me
- I know these guys are supposed to be villains, so the fact that the song is bad fits their characters, but it just makes me sad that actual people thought like this and just came to what is now America and terrorized the people that live here
- Also, I LOVE me some Menken, but I wish they had someone with an actual Native American heritage help with the music
- The parallel of the British guys going off on their journey and saying goodbye to loved ones to the Native American men coming home and greeting loved ones
- The animation in this movie is gorgeous already, the colors, the leaves, the landscape
- Pocahontas doing that swan dive off the waterfall, amazing. I’d start freaking out halfway down
- “Show off” haha
- Yeah, I’d be Meeko
- Aww I love Pocahontas and Nakoma’s friendship
- You know, we rarely get to see Disney princesses/heroines interact with other women as friends
- “I especially love his smile” haha Pocahontas is funny
- We love a strong father-daughter bond
- The chief cearly is close to Pocahontas and knows her well, so why does he think she’ll want to marry Kokoum. I get him thinking it’s what’s best for her, but he presents the idea as if he doesn’t think she’ll have a problem with it
- I love that she wears her mom’s necklace
- “Just Around the Riverbend” is underrated
- Wow that fork in the river is super convenient for her singing
- I love Grandmother Willow!!!
- I wish my dreams gave me guidance mine are usually so boring
- Man I wish they gave out gift baskets
- Ooh Pocahontas is smitten
- Fearsome explorer John Smith gets scared by a raccoon?
- He’s done so much exploring but doesn’t know what a raccoon is?
- Ugh I hate these settlers
- This is my least favorite villain song – it’s just annoying, kinda boring, no pizzaz or style
- This is a pretty dark and probably the darkest Disney heroine/hero meeting, he was literally about to shoot her jeez
- I know John Smith is like an okay guy, but something about this doesn’t sit right with me, like he went from “i can’t wait to fight anyone I meet” to “well I won’t hurt her” because she’s pretty??
- Disney exec: but how are they gonna understand each other? Other Disney exec: uh…magic; Disney exec: makes sense!
John Smith: How can we be speaking the same language? How is this possible?
- Ugh violence
- “Im not a stranger anymore” you’ve been here ten minutes bro
- “We’ve improved…lives” have you though???
- You guys had the plague less than 200 years ago, John, don’t act all high and mighty
- Pocahontas handing the gun back to him while saying “if the savage one is me”
- Colors of the Wind is so beautiful
- “You shouldn’t be out here alone” nakoma is literally right there
- John Smith is dumb creeping into her village
- Kokoum seems like an okay guy, yeah he’s serious but he cares about Pocahontas and he doesn’t get angry that she ran off, just concerned
- John Smith’s face is like super defined and it’s bothering me
- Okay this scene with John talking to Grandmother Willow and grappling with the fact that he’s talking to a tree is pretty funny
- I love that Meeko braids her hair – he braids better than I do
- Pocahontas only has John Smith to go off of and he has been pretty open about the fact that his bros are only there for the gold, he’s given no indication that anyone is open to talking
- WHY would John think this was going to go well. WHAT has he seen from these men that would indicate they’d be willing to make peace with the Native Americans and take the news that there is no gold well???
- I’m glad that John now understands that it’s not their land to take but this switched happened SO FAST in one song his entire worldview changed it’s just not realistic
- They could have at least had a montage of them sneaking out together over the course of days
- Oh great John you’re caught
- I don’t blame Nakoma she’s only watching out for Pocahontas
- Gosh those ripples are gonna take a long time though Grandma
- I wish real life was so simple as two people talking and get along and boom peace
- Making out in front of grandma?!!!
- Oh they are hardcore making out, this is a FAMILY movie!
- Why would he grab her necklace?
- Poor Kokoum, he was only trying to protect her
- Gosh this movie is sad
- Why is Nakoma chill and understanding all of a sudden? For all she knows, Kokoum went to go look out for Pocahontas and then was killed, her fears should be confirmed!
- Didn’t these guards hear Pocahontas get yelled at? Why would they let her in?
- “I’d rather die tomorrow than live a hundred years without knowing you” that’s such a good line
- Let’s all take a moment to be thankful the mel gibson song was cut from the movie
- Gosh Savages is such a harsh, gross song and I know that’s The Point but ugh I don’t like it
- Guys the voice of Winnie Pooh is the singing voice of the chief and it’s not a fun time
- I get what they’re going for with the parallel and the message is to talk to people who are different than you not fight but the historical context makes this cringey because the Native Americans didn’t invade someone else’s land and murder the people there so this “both sides are wrong” depiction is just…..no
- Ooh I love that shadow of the eagle being Pocahontas’ shadow
- This three way song is pretty epic
- Perfect dramatic timing Pocahontas
- You love him? It hasn’t even been three days
- I’m so TIRED of two day love stories
- The quick shooting, out for blood Brits are nice to take a pause and allow Pocahontas to say her peace
- She should probably mention that John DIDN’T kill Kokoum…
- Radcliffe is a governor can they really just chain him up like that?
- I’m sorry but I’m very doubtful Johnny boy could survive a gun shot wound all the way back to England, won’t it take weeks to get back? Can you say infection?
- Hahaha Percy decked out
- This goodbye is so emotional
- Ooh that score gave me goosebumps
Pocahontas is certainly a complicated film. I won’t say that it is all bad, because it does try to pass on the message that we shouldn’t let our differences separate us, and that prejudice and colonization are bad. However, I wish that they would have either chosen to tell the true story of Pocahontas OR just make up their own original story. Because combining the two was basically colonizing history – taking the parts that they wanted, not having any concern for how they were depicting/treating other cultures, and striving for not just a pat on the back, but money for a story that they did not properly tell. Still, I know that there are a lot of people who really love this movie (or at least parts of it) and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It does have great songs. Grandmother Willow also totally kickstarted the now classic Disney trope of the “cool grandmother” (see: Mulan’s grandma and Moana’s grandmother, Tala). This movie is definitely my least favorite of the Renaissance, so this was a little bit of a hump for me to get over. But now, we’re halfway done (sad) but at least we have funner films up ahead!
Next time, one of my faves, Hunchback of Notre Dame!