ETA: Trying to get back to business as usual, at least for the moment, though fair warning: there may be more political talk in the future. There may also not be; I don’t have any specific plans right now. But just so you know, the majority of this review, save some minor edits, was written before nearly half of America decided to vote for an unrepentant and unqualified bigot, so. Nothing here past this paragraph is election and/or protest related.
Okay. For a variety of reasons, my Disney Princess Movie Challenge had to be put on hold for several months, which leaves me with just under two months now to watch six movies and review them. This does not sound difficult until you understand that I am not a fast writer, and anytime I spend here writing for fun is, very unfortunately, time I’m not spending writing for money, and look people, I like money. I’m not even going to lie about that. Even if my rent hadn’t just doubled, which is sort of a consideration, I also like it when I have the opportunity to spend cash for things; I have, like, zero qualms about my materialism.
Regardless, I really would like to finish this particular challenge after failing so abysmally last year on Best Picture Winners, so I’m going to give it a shot. When we last left off, Mekaela and I had just watched Aladdin for the first time in about 20 years. Now?
Now I watch Pocahontas for the very first time. God help me.
As always with my Disney Princess movie reviews, this will come with SPOILERS. I’m still trying to figure out who would care about spoilers for a 20-year-old kids movie that’s loosely, LOOSELY based on a real life story, but, you know. I try to be considerate.
Under the evil command of Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers), John Smith (Mel Gibson) and a bunch of other British people invade America, looking for gold and the chance to kill Indians. But when John Smith meets Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), he realizes that there’s more to these “savages” than he previously thought, and their star-crossed love may be the only thing to stop their respective sides from going to war.
1. I have never seen Pocahontas before, and I wasn’t looking forward to it for what I feel should be pretty obvious reasons: Disney does not always have the best track record when it comes to racism and historical inaccuracies, and I was cringing at the thought of sitting through an hour-and-a-half of stoic Native American caricatures and the Power of Insta-Love magically defeating racism.
Here’s how I ended up feeling about it:
Pocahontas is problematic, and I’m not convinced that this was the best real life story to make into a fluffy Disney Princess Movie where everything ends more or less happily because, you know, it didn’t. Nonetheless, on its own, I did like the movie more than I thought I would, and there actually are some neat things about the film itself. We will get to those neat things, I promise–whatever it may seem to you, I do honestly try to strike a balance between being critical and being relentlessly negative during my reviews–but unfortunately, we hit one of my problems with the film straight away: I don’t think that the story of Pocahontas should begin with John Smith.
On one hand, Pocahontas has a fair amount of screen time. She’s not, say, Sleeping Beauty, who barely got to be in her own damn movie. On the other hand, even Sleeping Beauty’s story started with her origin: her birth, her blessings, and how the cursed laid upon her would dictate the course of her entire life.
Pocahontas, meanwhile, doesn’t do that. Instead, we begin with the brave, beloved, and renowned sea captain John Smith, who’s eager to have some fun and fight some Indians, and I get why: there’s a whole deeply uncomfortable song about bravely killing bloodthirsty “injuns,” which we immediately juxtapose with the happy, kind Native Americans in the opening credits . . . but by doing this, I feel like Disney has unconsciously framed the whole story into being about John Smith’s redemption, rather than Pocahontas’s heroism, which bothers me a little in a movie that’s, you know, called Pocahontas. This is why I wrote the summary like I did, rather than something more like “Pocahontas may be the only person who can stop this bloody conflict.” (Or something preferably much better than that.)
I feel similarly about the scene where Pocahontas and John Smith meet. When Pocahontas speaks, John Smith–and most of the viewers–don’t initially understand her, until the MAGIC WIND comes and fixes all that . . . but we’ll get to that bullshit in a minute.
Here’s the thing: John Smith speaks English because he actually spoke English, and–far more importantly–because that’s what the greater majority of the target audience speak. I understand that and I get it, but once again, that frames John Smith as being the POV character, unconsciously making it his story. What I think would have been a much better choice is to either have Pocahontas speak in English (or, perhaps better, modified Powhatan with English subtitles–reading is good for kids, folks, and for Christ’s sake, it’s like one line), and have John Smith speak in something that sounds like English but actually makes no sense, something like this or like this.
2. Also, critically, wind knowledge? Wind knowledge is a thing now?
Look, I know Disney had a challenge when they had to come up with a way to show an interracial romance in a very quick period of time between two people who didn’t even speak each other’s languages, but . . . shit, I though we’d at least get, like, a Learning Language Montage or something, like how Rocky trains to fight, or how Belle and Beast go from a Prisoner/Captor relationship to an “I LIKE YOU like you” relationship. And sure, the montage is often a lazy narrative device and I would have probably mocked such a scene, too, but Jesus, nothing is as lazy as having the goddamn wind fix your plot holes.
It’s possible, of course, that it’s not just the wind, but Pocahontas’s Dead Mom who apparently lives on the wind and tells people to listen with their hearts–because obviously, that’s the best way to learn a second language, WAY better than any of the more traditional methods, like immersion, schooling, or Duolingo. Still, for some reason I’m just not convinced that Ghost on the Wind Knowledge makes this scene any less ridiculous.
3. On the upside, I rather like Pocahontas herself.
I guess I expected her to be rather humorless, given common Native American stereotypes in Hollywood, but Pocahontas is happy and light-hearted (well, before shit goes down, anyway) and much more of a daredevil than I anticipated; she’s also probably magic, because she has a tendency to dive into waterfalls like that’s a totally common thing to do, like these jumps wouldn’t get you instantly dead. She’s very much a 90’s (or late 80’s) Disney Princess heroine: free spirit (like Ariel) who doesn’t want to marry the dude that’s into her (like Jasmine or Belle, although it’s important to note that Kocuom actually isn’t a villain and/or massive tool like Jafar and Gaston). But seriously, daredevil. I want to see some fan art of a modern day Pocahontas kicking ass at some extreme sports.
4. Another positive thing about this movie: unlike in Aladdin, with its overwhelmingly white cast, the voice work of the Native American characters appears to be primarily done by Native American actors. So, yay!
As far as the rest of the cast, well. You also have Linda Hunt playing a tree, which, okay, Grandmother Willow is just a weird character, isn’t she, like, there’s just this magical mentor tree in an otherwise not-particularly-magical world (save for a possible polyglot ghost on the wind, of course) that talks to Pocahontas, like, sure, that’s normal. Meanwhile, David Ogden Stiers plays Evil Governor Ratcliffe (who I surprisingly find to be a rather lackluster villain) and also, for some reason, Ratcliffe’s manservant Wiggins as well. Christian Bale, hilariously, plays the inept sailor turned Indian-killer Thomas . . .
. . . And then we have Mel Gibson.
Years ago, I knew that Mel Gibson had been cast as John Smith, but by now I had completely forgotten about it, so when I immediately recognized his voice, I couldn’t help but wince a little. Of course, Gibson’s sort of a cringe-inducing choice now because of, well, everything, but he’s also just an odd one: Mel Gibson is an Australian with an American accent playing an Englishman because you know, why not? Not that this is atypical of Hollywood by any means; it just makes me laugh. IMDb trivia tells me that Sean Bean was considered for the role, but they wanted someone with more star power. Which I suppose is fair: after all, Sean Bean wouldn’t make any sense; John Smith gets shot, sure, but he doesn’t die.
5. I knew going into this movie that Pocahontas was historically inaccurate; I just couldn’t remember exactly how, other than she and John Smith weren’t actually romantically linked. A quick fifteen minutes of research on Google has showed me some other glaring discrepancies:
A. Pocahontas was a child at the time of these events, perhaps 10 to 12. (I keep finding different reports, but it’s always firmly in Child Category.)
B. Pocahontas’s birth name was not Pocahontas. That was a nickname, and not a terribly charitable one at that, or at least doesn’t read that way to me. Her birth name was Matoaka.
C. The climactic moment where Pocahontas saves John Smith from being killed–upon which this whole story is based–may not have actually happened, or at least may have been wildly misconstrued by John Smith, who did not, in fact, have the Magic Power of Wind to translate everything he heard into English.
D. Pocahontas apparently didn’t like John Smith very much, at least not as an adult, as she reportedly refused to speak to him when she came across him in London years later.
E. The movie conveniently cuts off before Pocahontas was kidnapped, held hostage, converted to Christianity, baptized as “Rebecca,” married Englishman John Rolfe, and died from illness at the tragically young age of 21. (I couldn’t find a consensus on which illness, but smallpox was suggested a few times.)
Look, movies obviously have a long tradition of distorting history to fit their own narratives, and not every distortion is going to bother everyone equally, but . . . considering how tragic Pocahontas’s life was, perhaps her story wasn’t the best one we could have chosen for a Disney movie? I mean, I hate to say that if there are young Native American girls out there who are grateful for any representation at all, because that shit’s important, but . . . like, this isn’t presented as if it takes place in some better, alternate universe, you know, where we see how genocide could have been avoided if only we had listened to each other more, and so forth. This is a kids movie that purports to tell the real life story of Pocahontas, only we know, in the end, that Pocahontas dies young, that the tentative peace between the Native Americans and the Europeans falls apart, and that millions upon millions of Native Americans are killed. Telling this story–this wildly inaccurate story–without mentioning any of that feels like the worst kind of revisionist history.
6. Not to mention, it’s a little bothersome to me that John Smith’s whole redemption arc pretty much relies on one thing anyway: Pocahontas’s beauty. Like, her external beauty.
First, what needs to be said here is that Pocahontas looks badass. She’s a totally worthwhile character in this movie; I just find the story itself problematic.
But this is my point: John Smith didn’t lower his gun because he saw what a kind, wonderful, interesting person Pocahontas is; he lowers his gun because Pocahontas is hot, and that’s all. It’s not an entirely uncommon theme in redemption stories, I suppose, but in general I’m not a big fan of heroes learning that racism is bad simply because they met a cute girl, especially since that means that this whole peace thing would’ve crumbled before it even began if John Smith had accidentally run across an Indian woman he found ugly instead. It’s, like, sorry all you awesome women who score anything under a 9 on some dude’s arbitrary ass scale, but you won’t get the chance to show off all your heroism because you weren’t blindingly attractive enough to literally stop some racist dick in his tracks.
7. But let’s get back to some of the more neat things about Pocahontas because there are some awesome things that I wasn’t expecting. For instance:
7A. Pocahontas has a friend!
And not just an animal sidekick (not to knock animal sidekicks, mind: Meeko is obviously adorbs), but an actual young woman she can talk to. Because that’s the thing about us women: we usually have at least one female friend we like to converse with, and yet that has historically very much not been the case with the Disney Princesses thus far: Snow White and Sleeping Beauty had forest animals, Cinderella had mice, Jasmine had a tiger, Ariel had fish, Belle had enchanted servants that were working for her captor, and if I recall correctly, poor Eilonwy just had a damn bauble. Nakoma is a singular character in Disney movies, and frankly, she’s kind of the best.
Yes, I know, Nakoma “betrays” Pocahontas by spilling the beans about John Smith to Kocoum, but she was trying to protect her friend, had plenty of reason not to trust JS, immediately confessed what she’d done, and helped Pocahontas see this dude once he got captured. So, pretty good friend all around. Also, she’s funny. If the sequel to this movie was about Nakoma and Pocahontas’s friendship (rather than a love triangle between Pocahontas, John Smith, and Pocahontas’s real life husband John Rolfe), I might have actually watched it.
7B. The Villain’s Pet not only lives; he becomes a good guy!
It’s not only Disney heroes or heroines who have animal sidekicks; villains often do too, and some of them meet rather grisly ends. (We all remember what happened to Lucifer in Cinderella, don’t we?) But even if they live, the villain’s pet-sidekick doesn’t usually get the opportunity to convert to the Light Side; here, though, Ratcliffe’s pretty adorable pug eventually becomes friends with Meeko, which is kind of awesome. And, sure, thematic and all, considering the warring factions here, but regardless I was happy. (After all, I kind of liked Lucifer. Poor thing.)
7C. Pocahontas and John Smith actually don’t end up together at the end of the movie.
I mean, yeah, Pocahontas didn’t end up with John Smith in real life, either, but that doesn’t exactly mean much: clearly, historical accuracy wasn’t one of this film’s larger priorities. When Pocahontas is given the choice to either stay with her family and people, or sail away with her insta-love, I kind of expected her to be like Ariel and say, “Sayonara, bitches! I’m going to go ditch you all and spend the rest of my life with these people I don’t even know in a country I’ve never been to, and it’s gonna be swell!” And when John Smith offers to stay with Pocahontas instead, I thought that was a possibility, too . . . but nope, it turns out that they don’t get together at all. It’s . . . actually kind of impressive, watching Pocahontas make a mature, responsible choice, not throwing everything and everyone she’s ever known away for some dude she’s known a couple of days. Another reason to admire her as a heroine here.
8. Overall, I can’t say that the Pocahontas soundtrack did much for me one way or the other; most of it was decent enough, but not terribly memorable. And though I’d been dreading it, “Colors of the Wind” actually wasn’t too bad. (When I was a kid, that song was on VH1 all the fucking time. It’s bad when you’re still burnt out on a song twenty years after the fact. Also, that song gets stuck in your head like crazy. It’s playing in my head right now, actually. Nope, I’m back to hating it now.)
9. I’m totally embarrassed to admit this, but I completely forgot about Pocahontas’s Foreshadow Dream, so I totally didn’t see the arrow/compass twist coming.
It’s okay. I know I’ve failed you. No, I’ve failed myself.
10. Finally, about the animal sidekicks:
I feel a little bit sorry for the hummingbird, since clearly everyone loves the raccoon way more. Then again, Meeko is kind of awesome. Would that real life raccoons were this charming. More importantly, I am shocked to discover that, near as I can tell, “meeko” does not mean “raccoon” in any language that I can see. Disney, could you possibly be learning more subtle naming practices?
Then again, you named your hummingbird “Flit.” So, probably not.
John Smith: “I’ve gotten out of worse scraps than this. I can’t think of any right now, but.”
Governor Ratcliffe: “Wiggins, why do you think those insolent heathens attacked us?”
Wiggins: “Because we invaded their land and cut down their trees and dug up their earth?”
Pohawtan: “Kocoum has asked for your hand in marriage.”
Pocahontas: “Marry Kocoum?”
Pohawtan: “I told him it would make my heart soar.”
Pocahontas: “But . . . he’s so serious.”
Kocoum: “Tell her that. She listens to you.”
Nakoma (sarcastically): “Sure she does.”
On its own, it’s not a terrible movie. There are things I quite like about it, actually . . . but I can’t help but feel that the whole concept of it feels rather ill-conceived.
Racial prejudice can be overcome! Helps if you’re pretty, though.