Pocahontas Revisited

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today’s column, he discusses the 1995 film Pocahontas.)

A perfect storm combined to create a film that now serves as an awkward midpoint in the history of Walt Disney Feature Animation’s representation of non-White characters. In the run-up to the release of Pocahontas, expectations were high, so high that it was all but impossible for any film to meet them. The years prior to Pocahontas’ release in the summer of 1995 led to Disney’s most successful run of animated films in decades. In 1991, they received their first Best Picture Oscar nomination. In 1992, they released the highest-grossing film of the year. In 1994, they released a phenomenon to top all others, a film that few internally had expected to do well at all.

No one could have realized in the moment that The Lion King was not just the chronological midpoint of the Disney Renaissance, but also its peak. There were five years left in this Silver Age of Animation for one of the most influential studios in the world, but Pocahontas was the beginning of a mild downturn, not a continuation of impossibly high ambitions.

The Sound of Distant Drumming

It’s more accurate to say that Pocahontas was not a successful continuation of impossibly high ambitions. Whatever else is true, the star-crossed romance represents a daring attempt at pushing Disney storytelling forward. Many of the basic elements of a Disney animated film are on display in Pocahontas: there is a winsome female lead who desires more than her current life can offer her, a pair of comic-relief animal pals who help her out, anthropomorphized inanimate objects that speak, Broadway-style songs, and a (literal) mustache-twirling villain who wants to get in the way of our heroine’s happiness for his own personal gain.

But Pocahontas is also an animated retelling of how English settlers first arrived in the New World that eventually became the United States of America. And this retelling of a foundational part of American history was directly inspired by nothing less than William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. More to the point, as the title suggested, the film was squarely positioned as the story of a young Native American woman, one of a few cases in the Disney Renaissance of the studio’s animators tackling stories deliberately about non-White characters and culture. 

The minefield was thick for Pocahontas, too, because this was not the first time a Disney animated feature featured Native American characters. The most obvious example, of course, is the 1953 feature Peter Pan. That adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up features, as a subplot, Peter and Wendy Darling spending time with Princess Tiger Lily, a young girl of what’s clearly meant to be Native American heritage (even if she lives in the fantastical world of Never Land) and the rest of her tribe. As visualized in the Disney film, these characters are an extreme case of stereotyping; Tiger Lily doesn’t speak, and her father literally offers the White characters a peace pipe, while also holding his hand up and deeply intoning “How”. 

The Drums of War

Thus, to say that there was both room for growth as well as ways in which Disney could backslide even in a slightly more enlightened period is a dual understatement. But when the film was first pitched at one of the Animation department’s fabled Gong Shows by eventual co-director Mike Gabriel (fresh off being one of the co-directors of The Rescuers Down Under), it was immediately accepted. As Gabriel’s co-director Eric Goldberg stated at the time in the San Francisco Chronicle, “It was the quickest story turnaround in studio history.” The idea married the Shakespearean theme that the studio had long tried to mine, along with the notion of exploring a world that the animators simply hadn’t before. Of course, one of the executives present at the event, Michael Eisner, reportedly asked aloud if the studio hadn’t told the story of Pocahontas already (a quote that Gabriel once confirmed). But familiarity aside, the studio pressed on.

Considering the final product, the presence of Eric Goldberg as co-director might seem like a head-scratcher. Previous to Pocahontas, Goldberg was best known at Disney for his incredible, groundbreaking work as the supervising animator for the Genie in Aladdin. It was thanks to his work in that film that he was offered the co-director role on a film that was deliberately not going to be as wacky or outrageous as his previous gig. Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg — who would depart the studio in the fall of 1994 in an acrimonious split with Eisner — was careful to position Pocahontas as the studio’s next Beauty and the Beast, the kind of tender romance that could garner the studio plaudits such as another Best Picture nomination, if not an outright win. 

Per the film’s DVD commentary, what led Goldberg to stay on the project in spite of an intended somber tone was his personal reaction to the race riots in Los Angeles in 1992. Arguably, the way that we learn more about Pocahontas and her family could mirror that kind of reaction: we don’t so much get the lived-in perspective of a person of color, as we do the perception created by a White man appreciating a culture aside from his own and the fraught-with-tension issues that his presence causes. 

Dig Till You Drop

Telling the story of Pocahontas required leaning into legend and myth as much as fact. In the animated film, Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard) is a teenager who falls for the dashing settler John Smith (Mel Gibson). In real life, Pocahontas was not Pocahontas at all; her real name was Mataoka. Her age depends on who you ask — some scholars place her at age 13 when she encountered John Smith, at age 26, and others place her as young as 11. (In the early 1600s, a 13-year old girl would have been seen as mature enough to be married to a man twice her age.)

It’s not that the filmmakers and cast were pretending the film was fully faithful to the world of the 1600s. Bedard emphasized that the Disney film was “the legend” of the young woman. Regarding the two lead characters, the film’s producer James Pentecost once acknowledged, “Pocahontas is a little older in our story…and the true John Smith was probably not a very likeable character.” One of the film’s animators, Tom Sito, dryly pointed out that to be truly faithful to real life would have involved some gruesome imagery: “Do you know what happened to the real Sir John Radcliffe? When the Indians captured Smith, he was nailed to a tree and skinned alive. That would have been a choice Disney moment. Maybe a good song sequence.” Notably, another of the performers, Russell Means, a Native American activist, argued as far back as 1995 that the facts matter less than the overall message of the story: “‘Pocahontas’ is the first time Eurocentric male society has admitted its historical deceit. It makes the stunning admission that the British came over here to kill Indians and rape and pillage the land.”

All of this is to make obvious a couple of points: the accuracy, or absence thereof, of Pocahontas has been in great doubt since it was released in 1995. The most pointed example of the film’s accuracy coming into question was from Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow McGowan. In 1993, she was highlighted as one of the film’s consultants. In the summer of 1995, in a different article, she said, “They have maintained the respect of my people, but they have lost the story of Pocahontas.” (Decades later, in an interview, supervising animator Glen Keane mentioned his first encounter with Custalow McGowan, in the context of being visually inspired by her and her sister, and imagining himself as if he was John Smith, encountering Pocahontas for the first time.) 

If I Never Knew You

What this highlights is something both obvious and indisputable: history is messy. It’s rare for historical events to line up in such a way that they would make for an entertaining film without some amount of dramatic license being taken. And unsurprisingly, Disney’s version takes an extreme amount of creative liberty. While the animators touted the fact that the animal friends Pocahontas has don’t talk, she still does have pals like the raccoon Meeko and the hummingbird Flit. Then there are her encounters with a talking tree voiced by Linda Hunt. Though the film has a bittersweet ending, as the wounded Smith is taken back to England to heal, this story has a vastly happier ending — in which almost all of the settlers lay down their arms, as do the Native Americans — than reality.

The real Pocahontas eventually married, to another settler named John Rolfe, and was brought to England before dying at age 21. And there’s a fair deal of speculation among scholars of the period about how accurate John Smith was in recounting his relationship with Pocahontas. (Pointedly, the apocryphal tales we have to sift through regarding Smith and Pocahontas originate with him, not her. And as Pentecost admitted, Smith may not have been the dashing figure he attempted to cut for himself.) Typically, questions of historical accuracy wouldn’t pervade a Disney film. But that’s because, typically, their animated fare isn’t about legitimately real people or such foundational events in the history of this country. 

Those anthropomorphized animals and flora and fauna are, some would argue, precisely why it’s a fool’s errand to ding Pocahontas for not being true to the story. How on Earth could this movie be fully accurate if there’s a rascally raccoon on the sidelines trying to eat as much food as he can, for example? But the core emotional truth, or the intended core emotional truth, of Pocahontas has its underpinnings in reality, which is where the challenge truly begins.

The Footsteps of a Stranger

In short, the story of the young Native American woman we know as Pocahontas isn’t exactly Disney-friendly. Or, it wasn’t, at least until its complexities were sanded down into something more palatable, as deliberately hewed as it was to tragedy. From a critical standpoint, what makes Pocahontas fascinating is both how it serves as a response to the success of Beauty and the Beast, balancing the aims of traditional Disney storytelling with an attempt at telling a more profound story that will achieve universality, and in how it tries very hard to be more daring than previous studio efforts. In a few respects, it’s truly remarkable to behold this film. Here, just under 10 years after the crushing failure of The Black Cauldron, is a film that pushes the limits of feature animation in terms of design and layout, if not storytelling as a whole.

It’s an admirable problem that Pocahontas boasts: you can’t ding this film or its makers for phoning it in. After the wave of success created by the first half of the Renaissance, the animators didn’t just kick back and do what felt familiar, and thus lazy, for their next effort. This is likely a part of why, as mentioned in the last entry of this series, when animators were given the choice between working on either this or the film that would become The Lion King, they chose…Pocahontas.

Unlike later Disney animated films, which feel less creatively vital and more like a familiar blend of what had worked for the studio in the Renaissance, Pocahontas pushes further than previous films. It’s darker in its depiction of avarice, and the cowardice of most of the settlers. What suffers in Pocahontas are the elements that can best be described as typical to Disney animated storytelling, if not the animation itself, which can often be more impressionistic than usual (especially in the gloriously colorful “Colors of the Wind” sequence). 

Goldberg, in a long-ranging interview at Animation Views, expressed his frustration with how Disney executive demands made it so Meeko, Flit, and Percy, the dog owned by the villainous Governor Ratcliffe, had to wind up being silent characters. “The decision to make them pantomime was a tough one for me in particular.” Goldberg does go onto note that this decision is arguably correct considering what the final film is.

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