Disney Princess Retrospective: Pocahontas

Now it’s time to look at our Native American title character: Pocahontas from Pocahontas (1995)

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Set in Virginia in 1607, the story is about Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan from a Native American tribe, who meets and falls in love with John Smith from the Virginia Company. He and the British settlers attempt to explore the “New World”, with the hopes that they find gold. They’re also accompanied by the leader of the voyage Governor Ratcliff. Pocahontas and John Smith form a bond as they become fascinated by each other’s worlds. They soon realise that they’re going to have to try and prevent the possible rivalry of their two civilisations.

Pocahontas was modelled after her voice actress, the also Native American Irene Bedard, while Broadway singer Judy Kuhn provided the singing voice. Irene Bedard would later play Pocahontas’s mother in The New World (2005), which provides a more historically accurate depiction of the events. It also has Christian Bale (voicing Thomas in Pocahontas) as John RolfeMost notably, Pocahontas is the only Disney Princess to be based-off a real-life historical figure, although they took a lot of liberties. For one thing, the real Pocahontas was 12, while in the movie she’s much older. And Pocahontas was just a nickname that everybody called her; her real name was Matoaka. You really have to look up the info. If you know the reputation of this film, you’re going to have to do some research to get all the facts right. This is actually more based-off the fable and folklore of Pocahontas than the actual historical facts of Pocahontas. It’s based on the popular myth about John Smith and Pocahontas having a romance, and that Pocahontas protected John Smith from an execution. Most likely none of it happened, especially considering the fact that John Smith was much older than Pocahontas and there couldn’t have been a romance. But the film makes the romance the focus. In the Disney Princesses line-up, she’s apparently the least popular. She doesn’t appear in the merchandising as much as the other Princesses, and most of her appearances are usually restricted to group photos (I guess it’s because her appearance is the least princess-like). And last but not least, Pocahontas is the only Disney Princess to be denied the happy ending by not staying with John Smith; she stays with John Rolfe in the sequel, whom she married in real life.

Pocahontas

According to some sources she’s not very popular as a Disney character. In this retrospective, I said it was tricky to defend Aurora, and kind of the same with Pocahontas, except that I find Pocahontas to be the weaker character. I want to keep in mind that, like Aurora, I don’t dislike Pocahontas, but I don’t love her as much as the other Disney Princesses. She is definitely the most flawed in the line-up, and the weakest.

It actually saddens me to say this and to say that Pocahontas wasn’t a really good film (flawed at best). I like the film even though I’m aware of its flaws. The creators of the film had high hopes for this film, believing that this film was gonna get an Oscar nomination like Beauty and the Beast did. Although it did pretty well at the box office, and with film critics, general audiences didn’t love it as much as the previous Disney Renaissance films, and if you know well, it’s criticised for being historically inaccurate and even racist. I highly doubt that the creators of Pocahontas wanted to insult anyone, but I guess they got so overexcited with the project that they ended up overlooking some of the important details and its criteria, which ended up making the film problematic. Everyone’s gone through this.

Although the film is problematic, it’s safe to say that the animation and music is top-notch. I love the colours, the unique design and the movement of everything, and the music by Alan Menken is fantastic, with its instrumentals, musical motifs and most of their songs. I should definitely praise the film for that. Similarly I praise Pocahontas on the same departments. I LOVE the way they animated Pocahontas. They gave her a more unique design, interesting movement (especially with her hair blowing in the wind), and gave her subtle expressions and that sense of wonder we see with other Disney characters. In her singing voice, Judy Kuhn manages to pull off the energy and enthusiasm of this character, just as much as Irene Bedard does a fantastic job balancing between the childish and grown-up sides of the character’s voice, giving us a curious and free-spirited character. I LOVE the voice acting and singing of this character. The makers of the film were as passionate about this character as much as the film itself; they had a real intention of making a proactive and brave heroine. One of the producers even went as far as to say that Pocahontas was the strongest heroine they’ve ever had in a Disney film.

Pocahontas

So how exactly does Pocahontas as a character fail or succeed disregarding her animation and vocals?

Well, Pocahontas’s name means “little mischief”, so the makers of the film wanted to show-off a playful and mischievous side, which is why she shows-off curiosity more than other people in her tribe, but also show her a more mature side through her spirituality. In the film, she’s portrayed as free-spirited, strong, and highly spiritual. For all these positive traits that they tried to aim for this character, they didn’t add anything new compared to the other Disney Princesses. She doesn’t stand out in personality and her motivation is pretty much the same as the other heroines. They gave her a curiosity and playfulness, but nothing in particular that made her stand out other than her environmentalist messages. I’d be ok with this character if it made sense within the context of the story, but the story doesn’t add anything new either: it’sAvatar and Dances With Wolves. The whole film is pretty much a generic Disney film with a generic Disney Princess.

In her skills, Pocahontas is definitely quite athletic, and being spiritual makes her in tune with nature all the time. Having almost shamanic powers, she can communicate with nature, talk to a 200-year old tree, and learn another language… ok, that’s pretty stupid when considering that this is based on history. I mean… she’s magically able to speak English when she meets John Smith? That was a really cheap way out of the language barrier. And a talking tree that can moves its branches? No offence to the voice actress who played Grandmother Willow. But… it’s a singing tree in a film based on historical events.

Pocahontas and John Smith

Then there’s the romance aspect. To me it doesn’t a whole lot of sense. I did feel there was a bond truly developing between Smith and Pocahontas, but it felt more like a friendship than a romance. There was more intimacy than there was passion. They’re fascinated by each other’s worlds, and they’re established to be opposites: Pocahontas has never seen the world and is stuck in her home, but Smith doesn’t really consider having a home anywhere for travelling the world so much. Although opposites naturally attract, these guys are complete opposites. Other than the fact that they’re interested in exploring new things, I didn’t find anything else that they really had in common. I dunno. The romance could have been done better… it felt like the romance was just there because it’s a Disney film. But I do LOVE their duet “If I Never Knew You”!

Now here comes what I believe to be my biggest problem with this character: her motivation. It’s not very clear. Basically Pocahontas is at the point in her life where she wants to find her own path. All she knows is that she doesn’t want to be married to someone so “serious”. Then in the climax, John Smith is gonna get executed at sunrise, she finds the compass, which turns out to be the arrow from a dream she constantly kept having. So the spirits of the wind, I think, are pointing to John. She says “I was right. It was pointing to him.” This gets confusing for me, because she knows that she’s in love with John Smith, and there was a point earlier in the film where she could have said, “Stop. You can’t kill him because I love him.” She is the kind of person who would speak against her father, so what made her wait until now when she could have done it before? Was it just for the climax of the movie? And the “path” is confusing as well. It points to John Smith like it’s telling her that she should be with him, and she says “this is the path I choose”. But afterwards, she’s given another choice to either go with John Smith to the voyage home or stay here with her tribe, and she ends up picking the latter. So what was the path in the first place? Was it for her to be with John Smith? No, because she stays with John Rolfe both in the sequel and in real life. Was it something like keeping peace between the two civilisations? I don’t know, because they don’t establish anything. And was it the spirits telling her her path, or was it her making that choice for herself? That was really confusing and didn’t make a lot of sense, neither in the context of the story or even in the actual themes of the film! We don’t know what she truly learns about herself, and it’s like Pocahontas was just a plot device for the story to move forward. That’s a HUGE flaw in the film.

Pocahontas

I don’t dislike Pocahontas, but I don’t love her either. She’s problematic as she doesn’t bring anything new to the table or particularly special compared to the other Princesses. Despite the flaws, some people like her anyway. They could see her offering important traits like being strong and being true to oneself, and I guess most people would like her for her environmentalist messages. I will admit that I do enjoy the movie Pocahontas, but I am entirely aware of the film’s objective flaws, and I completely understand where complaints come from. I love the animation, music, and the overall ambition to the project, even though everything didn’t turn out according to what they wanted it to be. And I know other people feel the same way as I do. I’d recommend them to at least do some research over the real historical events out of respect. Both the film and this character is problematic, but I’ll say that at least they tried.

For a change we’ll look at a heroine who’s the opposite of Pocahontas. While Pocahontas tries to follow the Disney Princess formula too much, here we have a character who tries something notably different: Mulan.

I’m all about writing my personal thoughts on film through discussing film topics or recent news and writing reviews on recent or old/classic films. These are my thoughts on film as a film student and a film lover, as well as some other random topics. I am also passionate about singing and writing!