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Everyone remembers the Disney classics of the 90s. The Lion King, Aladdin, Pocahontas. Well, maybe not so much the last one. I remember the concept. A Native American tribe is visited by British colonisers and the plot goes from there. Two characters from two vastly different worlds learn to appreciate one another. It seems simple enough. Other than this, I remember very little of this movie. I remember it getting a lot of hate in comparison to its Disney family members. Does it hold up any better after 25 years? No. Not really.
Don’t get me wrong, there are good things and bad things in Pocahontas, and it definitely has its audience. The first noticeable element is that the animation is very different to previous works. There is a stronger realism to the animation design with sharper lines creating the flow of movement. The colours are strong and the environments are beautifully drawn. Oh, and the songs are great (or rather, most of them are).
The song we most closely associate with Pocahontas, “Colors of the Wind” is a gorgeously written piece sung by Judy Kuhn. It works particularly well as it is used to try and resolve one of the film’s central obstacles. It’s also one of the prettiest Disney songs ever, the most powerful line for me being: “You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you, but if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew.” There is a message there that is incredibly profound and could be applied to a lot of problems in our world. Now that we have the good out of the way, let’s look at where it suffers.
The characters offer nothing. The film’s message may be an admirable one but the plot is predictable, the characters forgettable and boring. It feels like a film that could have been so much better. It ends up as a project that was rushed for the sake of pushing a culturally sound message rather than focusing on getting it right. Don’t get me wrong, the actions of our protagonist (based on an historical figure frequently ignored or misrepresented in popular culture) are powerful and she does things that no other Disney princess does. But she still manages to fall flat in terms of personality and fails to make a huge impact on the viewer with her presence.
There are some fun moments but, overall there is a prevailing sense that Disney did a lot of whitewashing, choosing to forsake the true, sometimes horrific, events, in favour of more cartoonish moments. We understand why it was done, but should it have been? Should a tale of this importance have been made into a romance of ethnic solidarity? Countless articles have been written about Pocahontas from all angles, taking into account its historical influences, examining its racial diversity and gender representation.
One thing that cannot be denied about Pocahontas is that the protagonist is a strong, independent woman, and this shines through. Whatever we think regarding the film’s controversies, we do have to look at the good traits of our heroine. Sure, she has flaws, but what she is not is a pushover. She breaks the mold, much like Jasmine and Belle, escaping the damsel in distress stereotype that had come synonymous with the Sleeping Beauties and the Snow Whites of early Disney. There is no denying Disney’s goal: it just might not have been the best way to do it.
So, 25 years later, is Pocahontas any better? There are definitely some thought-provoking moments that come out of this world of historical misrepresentation. Visually, it is still stunningly animated. It may have tried, but it, like some of the other Disney tales of its time, struggles to really make a mark. It isn’t bad. It isn’t good. It is just a footnote in a long line of Disney that can be learnt from and built upon for future projects.