My feelings about Pocahontas are quite varied, and have only become more so as I get older. This is the version of the classic legend I grew up with, yet as I grew up I learned that the movie takes plenty of artistic liberties with the story. Once I reached college and took a class on Jamestown, with a heavy focus on the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith, I realized how little of this story was based on historical fact. The real John Smith was in his late 20s, while Pocahontas was 12; there is no record the pair had any sort of romantic relationship, nor that they even interacted with one another, save for a brief entry in Smith’s notoriously exaggerated personal journals. Disney’s version latched onto a small detail in history and based their movie on this larger than life legend. Knowing that it’s not true, how then do I approach this film?
Essentially, you have to take this movie with a grain of salt. Yes, the names of many characters are based on actual people, and some of the broader events are true, but all of the details were made up for this film. By viewing the story as a fictional account of life in a real point in history, one is able to appreciate the story for what it is, without being distracted by what’s real and what’s not.
Now, on to the actual film. Pocahontas is groundbreaking in that it’s the first Disney princess film to feature a non-white protagonist. Even more surprising is that the film allows Native American culture to be a key aspect of the story, with the characters speaking their native tongue and alluding to their own belief system. This is a pretty big leap forward for a company that, a mere 30 years earlier, was depicting Indians as cultural cliches in Peter Pan. Here their culture is accepted for what it is, with beliefs in spirits and nature being handled with an over-arching air of sensitivity. Never mocking, the film acknowledges that different beliefs rule over different cultures, never portraying the “white man” as superior to the Indian.
“Colors of the Wind”, the most beautiful and memorable song in the film, shows Pocahontas explaining to John Smith that one must listen to nature in order to truly appreciate it, and that seeking to possess the world with no understanding of it will leave you incomplete. It’s a pretty heavy message for a kid’s film, but even as a child I remembered appreciated the sentiment. Moments like this make me wonder if such scenes played a larger role in shaping my generation, and may explain why ours is more aware of the importance of conservation or protecting the environment than previous generations. Sure, it may be a bit of a stretch, but it’s also entirely possible. These movies helped shape our childhoods, and there’s no doubt that we were influenced by their messages, whether we know it or not. This song remains one of my favorites, and feels even more relevant as an adult.
Given such heavy topics as conquering new lands, the concepts of “us versus the savages”, and greed for gold, it’s obvious that Disney needed to throw in some comedic relief to balance out the story. This humor rarely comes from the human characters, and instead is shifted to the animals in the film, specifically through Percy the dog, Flint the hummingbird, and Meeko the raccoon.
I had forgotten just how much I love Meeko. The precocious and always-hungry raccoon causes mischief and mayhem everywhere he goes. In later Disney films, such comedic side characters feel forced, infusing humor into the story that falls utterly flat, even for a child. Here though, the humor balances the rest of the story and is truly funny throughout the film. Meeko is cute and expressive, and his actions never detract from the more serious-minded aspects of the film. Instead, he almost represents the childish side of the story; as the humans interact and try to figure out how to coexist, Meeko is focused solely on doing anything he pleases, causing harmless trouble for anyone he comes across, race or species be damned. He’s charming and innocent, yet doesn’t have that feeling of annoyance that so many humorous cartoon characters elicit as we get older. Meeko’s humor feels timeless, and remains funny even twenty years later.
Disney concludes the story with a much more hopeful ending than what history really presents us with. A part of me is somewhat annoyed by this; after all, it’s stories like these that explain why so many people don’t know true history. They simply know the legends that have been perpetuated, even if there’s little to no truth in them. I think I’d prefer it if the characters’ names had been changed, if only to help differentiate the story from actual history. The film would lose some credibility and weight by doing this, and seeing as how the movie is over two decades old, it’s hardly an issue at this point. Still, there’s always that nagging feeling that this film is just a bit off due to its inaccuracies. Even so, it’s a beautiful story nonetheless, with a positive message for young viewers. If anything, it’s a great way to bring up the events of early America with children without having to expose them to the harsh realities of the truth. The fact that Disney even attempted to cover such a volatile moment in history is surprising, and that they managed to do so quite well is even more impressive. Overall this is a beautifully told story; sure, it may not be entirely factual, but then no legend ever is. Watch it as historical fiction, and surely you’ll agree.