Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In Defense of Pocahontas

Pocahontas is a tricky movie to talk about because there's so much going on AROUND the movie that it's impossible to address the movie itself without addressing its circumstances and immediate competitors.

So yes, I've heard the Princess Mononoke comparisons. But look. Pocahontas is a CHILDREN'S movie. Princess Mononoke may be animated, but it is not for children. It's violent and ruthless and harsh. I think comparing the two as equals is intellectually dishonest. Of course Pocahontas is going to look ludicrously childish and simplistic by comparison - it's for children! You cannot make a movie for six-year-olds where a man gets his arms shot off on screen. You just can't. If you try to argue with me, you're wrong. :)

Beyond that - yes, Pocahontas was the first Disney movie to be based off historical events. Well... in that Pocahontas and John Smith were the names of people who lived in Virginia around that point in time. And that there was a guy named Ratcliff prancing about.

Look, we all know that Pocahontas isn't historically accurate.

Pictured here, the native "talking tree" of Virginia
To be honest I find the umbrage people take with this movie very bizarre considering the fact that it's basically as accurate as any other given historical Hollywood movie. Look at Troy, or Alexander, or hell, this movie's closest parallel Anastasia. People have extremely fond memories of Anastasia, and it's centered around a historical scenario where half a dozen royal children (and many others) were in fact brutally murdered. Personally, I'm far less comfortable with cutesying that up.

Is it because Pocahontas is set in America, and since it's American history it is therefore sacred? I don't know. 

Additionally, you have to look at the circumstances surrounding its release. Let me tell you the three movies in the Disney Animated canon that were released immediately prior, in chronological order: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.


Those are some damn hard acts to follow. This was the absolute peak of the Disney Renaissance. It was also a time when Disney was still taking more chances - Aladdin was not a traditional Disney Princess movie in that the main character was a young boy, and The Lion King didn't feature people at all, but was still pitched as a dramatic film. You can see this as well when you look at the movie that followed Pocahontas - The Hunchback of Notre Dame, arguably Disney's darkest and most daring movie.

Pocahontas was a risk in that it was based on a historical event, yes, but I would argue that the real risk they took was in the character arc they chose to depict. Disney movies tend to be about nice people who want something, and discover that if they have the courage to love the right person, all their dreams come true.

That... is not this story.

The real way that Pocahontas departs from the Disney princess norm is that it's a coming of age story about two characters who grow from brash, enthusiastic adventurers into mature adults who are forced to accept the harsh circumstances of the world and sacrifice their own desires for the good of others.

Pocahontas the character gets a lot of stick for being boring, and I really don't think that's fair. In the beginning of the movie she's playful and bold. She jumps off a waterfall, knocks her friend out of a boat, complains about how serious her fiance is, and goes out looking for the invaders that everyone else is terrified of. 

Enjoy your funtimes, they're about to end! Forever.
Which brings us to John Smith. I actually really love this character (and find it interesting that he never gets talked about in terms of being a Disney Prince... sure they didn't get married, but hell, NEITHER of the two main characters in Mulan are royalty! And all we even got from them was a hug!). For one thing, John Smith does have a personality, and it's similar enough to Pocahontas's that we understand exactly why they love each other. Their relationship is by far the most believable out of the Disney couples except for maybe Mulan and Tiana's. It happens naturally, over a period of time, and there's no question of why or whether they would sacrifice themselves for each other.

Also, John Smith loves Pocahontas for being strong and smart. He actually doesn't mention the way she looks ONCE in the entire movie. Four for you, John Smith.

At the beginning of the movie, both characters smile and joke and bounce around the screen. But as relations between their respective groups grow tense, this relationship that has become so important to them becomes more and more difficult. They both risk being pariahs by seeing each other, and both are begged not to continue the relationship by their closest friends. So on a personal level, their relationship is unquestionably the most important thing to each of them.

But then things come to a head between the Indians and the settlers, and both characters attempt to sacrifice themselves for each other. (Pocahontas manages to do it without getting hurt, so I say she wins.)

At the end of the movie, they have to sacrifice their relationship for causes bigger than their own personal desires. Make no mistake, this is Pocahontas's story - John Smith begs her to let him stay or for her to come with him and she refuses both, because he needs to leave in order to live and she has to stay in order to continue protecting her people as the chief's daughter.

Responsibility blows.
To wit: Pocahontas is one of the very, very few depictions of a sacrificial kingship theme for a woman.

Sacrificial leadership used to be an exceedingly popular theme (as we've talked about, at length). Our society isn't quite as into the idea of honor as cultures previous to us, but you can see its echoes in stories all throughout history: King Arthur, The Golden Bough by James Frazer, Tolkein's work. But it's vanishingly rare to see it used for a lady. That's pretty refreshing. 

And although John Smith is a big part of the narrative, this is unquestioningly Pocahontas's story. We see that she is the one to make the big choices for both of them at the end. Pocahontas is the one who has grown and learned enough to make the hard decisions while John Smith clings to idealism, but ultimately accepts her judgment as correct.

So yeah, as a historical piece, Pocahontas is about as accurate as The King and I. But so what? It's a solid, beautiful movie about a capable, courageous young lady. I can get behind that.


  1. Love this! I'm actually writing a paper on Disney Princesses ; ) Glad someone else out there think's they're awesome too!!!

  2. I remember loving this movie as a kid. More than any of the other princess movies. My sisters and I would watch this one more than any other. As much as I love the old Disney movies though I never really got the whole damsel in distress princess thing. That's probably why my favorite movie from them is The Fox and The Hound. =)

    1. Good taste :D F&H was always a little dark for me, made me sad. But it's probably their most subtle piece. A good movie for sure.

  3. AWWWWKWARDDDD!!! I'm dying laughing :D


    1. You're pathetic for posting that.

  4. I see your point of view with this article, except for one thing:
    "People have extremely fond memories of Anastasia, and it's centered around a historical scenario where half a dozen royal children (and many others) were in fact brutally murdered. Personally, I'm far less comfortable with cutesying that up."

    Considering the colonisation of Native Americans was practically genocide and killed (some estimate) 113 million, your comment is misplaced.