Sometimes, even when you don't expect much fidelity to actual events, Hollywood will really surprise you with the amount of bullshit they'll pile up and the coats of whitewashing they'll use. Pocahontas has long been one of those types of films for me. When people proclaim that Disney traffics in churning out one bland concoction after another in which there is only true love as the answer to all of life’s problems, they’re talking about a movie like Pocahontas.
Dubious, if not outright offensive, as a history lesson (and trust me, many people my age mostly know of the story of Pocahontas from this film), Pocahontas suffers from artistic liberties taken with the narrative in order to recreate the tired stereotypes of the Noble Savage and the White Man's Guilt. Throw in a few unnecessary animal sidekicks and some largely forgettable songs, and what you have here is the nadir of the Renaissance. It would all fall apart shortly after this.
Even worse is the thinking behind gutting the true story, and all of its inherent un-pleasantries, the filmmakers have hidden behind to make these changes ok. Apparently, Pocahontas’ story is more of a fable than based on historical facts. This not only makes me roll my eyes in frustration, but when you realize that they’ve re-conceptualized her from a tween to a Top Model eighteen year old it’s enough to make you swear off the whole Disney brand.
Let’s get back to the film and forget all of the loaded symbolism and revisionist history at play here. It is an exceptionally dull affair. A Disney film is only as great as its villain, and here we have one who is more an arrogant blowhard than a legitimate threat. Sure, his belief in the genocide of the Native Americans is pretty dastardly, as are his rampant xenophobia and disgust for any possible mixed-race romances, but he never does anything of note. He creates a settlement, says some racist things, owns a hilarious and adorable pug, digs for gold, tries to shoot someone and is then captured as the rest of his crew realize the error of their racist, xenophobic mindset. There’s no drama in there, and he’s no true threat.
Worse yet is the love story between John Smith and Pocahontas, which asks you to believe that she learned English in a day, or he learned her language in just as brief an amount of time. I know, it’s an animated film, but if all it really takes to fall in love and understand someone completely is a beautiful, surreal musical sequence, then life would be much easier for us all. It’s rushed and passion-less, coming across more like Smith is getting hot under the collar because she’s a half-naked statuesque Other, an exotic lust object and nothing more.
Being a Disney film, it is filled with musical sequences, which are by and large forgettable. Only “Colors of the Wind” lingers in the mind because it dares to strike a different, more artistically adventurous chord from the rest of the film. A few of these sequence drift into uncomfortable territory as they bring back up the antiquated images of Native American life and folklore as being nothing but trippy mystical fires, talking trees, nature-focused spirituality and the ability to communicate with nature.
I know, going to Disney and expecting an accurate history lesson is an exercise in masochism, but there’s no reconciling the galling display of poor decision making in this mess of a film. At the end, as Pocahontas stands brokenhearted staring off into the distance like Garbo in Queen Christina, and the white settlers leave to return to England, what else am I supposed to feel but incensed? Alright Disney, I know you trademark in happy endings, and in deciding to adapt another story that didn’t have one, you had to engineer one, but goddamn guys. I don't think there's a single accurate thing here aside from some names, dates, and locations.