Pocahontas: The John Smith Story

I have never liked this movie.  It is one of the few Disney movies I have seen that left me disappointed.  I saw it by myself in the theaters.  I couldn’t even convince Mr. Mouse to go see it with me.  The music was good, but for me that’s about it.

Disney was trying to increase the diversity of their movies and on the surface making a movie about a Native American seems like a good idea.  Telling stories beyond those told in western Europe is a good idea.  The problem arises when the writers opt for a story based in history rather than folk lore.  Disney animation successfully pulled from fairy tales, novels, and legends.  With ‘Pocahontas’ they deviated from that model.  Instead of exploring the rich tradition of Native American storytelling, they pulled from a historically dubious tale that white people repeatedly taught as fact to further the agenda of Manifest Destiny and the civilizing of the native peoples.  What could possibly go wrong?

Let’s start with a few facts.

  1. The colonization of our continent was brutal. Setting a children’s movie in a time just pre-dating a genocide is not going to be easy to overcome.  I would argue that Disney didn’t overcome it.  The movie is dark.  Even with the worst of the racism swept to the side, it is a force that has to be dealt with and there is no Disney song cheerful enough for that.
  2. Pocahontas was 10. Her character had to be radically changed in order to make the story even remotely palatable.  The less thought about this, the better.
  3. There were no native royalty. Pocahontas was not a ‘Princess’ and Disney’s insistence that she is feels forced.
  4. John Smith was not the hero he was portrayed to be.
  5. John Ratcliffe was no more villainous than any other settler and was not looking for gold.
  6. The native tribe was completely misrepresented.

In the face of so many historical inaccuracies, there had to be some concessions made to the facts.  The writers made sure there were no women in the settlement and no women in leadership in the tribe.  While there was a stereotypical wise woman role, it was given to a tree.  So that’s accurate.  Good job.

Let’s be clear about this movie.  “Pocahontas”, named after a Native American woman, is a movie about John Smith.  The movie starts with his departure from England and ends with his return.  He is the first character named.  It is his character arc that drives the plot and his decisions that move the action.  The conflict is focused on him.  It is his story.  I can’t even describe how frustrating that is.  At least “Aladdin” was honest in the title about who the movie was about.  “Pocahontas” promises a story about a Native American Princess and we get instead a movie about a white guy who gets a little less racist.  Good times.

The statistics are mixed.

Bechdel test*: In addition to Pocahontas, we have her friend Nakoma and they do talk to each other.  Not often, but they talk about Pocahontas and her dreams not exclusively about the men around them.  Result:  PASS

Percent of words spoken by women**24%.  One would think that a movie about a woman would let that woman speak a majority of the dialog.  One would be wrong.

*The Bechdel Test evaluates film based on whether there are at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

** The data comes from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who have been working on a project to analyze all the dialogue from the Disney princess movies.  The project was reported in The Washington Post by Jeff Guo.

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