There’s no getting around the fact that Pocahontas is a deeply, deeply problematic film. Its white-washed, revisionist narrative of the founding of Jamestown and the first encounters between English settlers and Native Americans turns the ugly story of colonisation into a whimsical fairytale, and its strenuous efforts at both-sidedness elide the enormous power imbalances that led to the decimation of Native peoples. But above and beyond these issues, it’s also just quite a crap film.
Pocahontas (Irene Bedard, with Judy Kuhn providing the singing voice) is a whimsical, free-spirited Native American woman accompanied by a sentient breeze. The breeze is committed to getting Pocahontas a starring role in a Bollywood movie (the filmmakers presumably confusing American Indians and Indian Indians), ensuring that her hair is always blowing artistically behind her to emphasise that she is, y’know, Of Nature. She’s even more Of Nature than the rest of her people, associated as she is with rocks and lakes, separated from the recently returned warriors who are seen with tools and weapons. Sadly, she has been promised in marriage to a young warrior, Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall) when all she wants is to be free.
The film doesn’t start with Pocahontas, however. Instead, it decides to introduce us from the point of view of the brave men of the Virginia Company, seen launching from London to set up in the New World. These are a lively, fun-loving, brave and kindly group of colonial invaders, with blonde-haired, blue-eyed John Smith (Mel Gibson – you can’t make this up) even jumping overboard to rescue a fellow sailor during the visit. They’re brave and good in order to contrast with Evil Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers), who is planning to find gold in the Americas and to become rich and powerful.
As the English set up shop, the film is desperately anodyne in its attempts to show fault on both sides. The English arrival is clearly an invasion, and the scenes of the sailors tearing up trees and beginning digging for gold are brutal, wounding the landscape and declaring the land theirs. However, the film attributes all this to Ratcliffe, and the sailors turn against him when they realise the extremity of his actions, making sure that we know that white people are fundamentally decent apart from bad apples. The Powhatans, on the other hand, are fearful and suspicious, spying on the English rather than trying to make contact. They’re innocent and victims, but they’re also presented as being too quick to violence. In the song ‘Savages’, both sides suggest that because the other are different, they must be evil and destroyed. In this version of history, this was all an unfortunate misunderstanding between good faith people who needed to learn to trust one another.
The problem with all of this, aside from the racism, is that it leads to a very banal story. Pocahontas and John meet in the woods and fall in love through the medium of song, with ‘Colours in the Wind’ the closest that the film has to a banger; even this song is instantly forgettable. For some reason (apparently they’re listening to one another with their heart or some shit) they can both speak English, and as they learn to understand one another, they appeal to their respective communities to de-escalate, showing themselves willing to sacrifice themselves for each other. Happily, this being a Disney film, everyone listens, and the film builds up to a representation of Thanksgiving as the Powhatans kindly bring the English food before they depart. It reduces Pocahontas and John to being a conduit for the film’s message of love-conquers-all-including-racism, as blown about as the leaves that incessantly blow around Pocahontas.
To the film’s credit, there are some good faith efforts here. This is Disney’s first major interracial romance, and the attempt to show the English mission as driven by self-serving capitalists is a challenge to conventional mainstream American children’s narratives of this period. And, interestingly for Disney, it ends with the couple being separated, as John’s bullet wound can only be cured by going back onto a boat for an incredibly dangerous sea voyage, apparently. While this gets around the issue of having a mixed-race couple happily ending the film together, it at least suggests a future for Pocahontas which isn’t entirely shaped by marriage, with her two suitors dead or gone. But fundamentally this is the wrong story for Disney to be telling, at least in the way it does. It would take until Moana for the studio to return to a story of Native peoples that showed appropriate respect to their culture and mythology. Here, the both-sidedness and anodyne romance created a film whose forgetability, in retrospect, feels like a strength.