published on 18 June 2015
This week sees the twentieth anniversary of the release of the Disney classic, Pocahontas. The world has changed considerably in those two decades, but the underlying issues and problems with the film remain very contemporary.
The movie evokes poignant memories for me. I never saw it in the cinema, but watched it countless times on VHS with my then toddler son, in a remote cottage in the middle of a Scottish moor.
Pocahontas was not the most successful of the major Disney releases of that era. It has been largely eclipsed by the giants of The Lion King, Aladdin, and Toy Story. But it is one of the few Disney animated classics that attempted to portray a ‘real life’ story.
Disney’s telling of the Pocahontas story was an interesting blend of actual and imagined history — tending much more towards the latter in many respects. We do not expect a Disney cartoon to tell us how it is. But what they do say — and how they say it — is of great significance. Even after all this time, I do not know quite whether I feel comfortable with the film.
The storyline for the female lead (the ‘Indian princess’ Pocahontas) was quite distinct in its time, predating Elsa and others in its portrayal of a young women choosing to defy the expectations of the men around her. However, she does rather instantly ‘fall in love’ with the first tall blond European (with Mel Gibson’s voice) that she meets.
The problem with the film was not so much how historically accurate it was, but rather how it dealt with that most fundamental of encounters in American history: the apparent first encounters between the English settlers and the native people. …