Directed By: Mike Gabriel & Eric Goldberg
Produced By: James Pentecost
Inspired By: The Life & Legends of Pochontas (1595-1617)
Premiered On: June 16, 1995
Distribution By: Buena Vista Pictures
The one and only Disney Animated Film to be loosely based on actual historical events, Pocahontas is a film that is, quite possibly, the most neutral of all Disney films insomuch that people either love it or, at the least, don’t quite care for it. Rather ironic too considering that whilst the studio was making this film alongside The Lion King, most were of the opinion that this was the film to be the box office sensation.
Got to give Disney some credit though, they timed the release of the film so that it debuted in on the 400th anniversary of her supposed birth year, as it and her actual birth date, were never able to be confirmed and only speculated upon.
The film’s take on the tale of Pocahontas is a more romanticized version of her encounter with the Englishman John Smith and the first Jamestown settlers that had arrived upon her native soil from the Viginia Company led by John Ratcliffe in a quest for gold. By teaching and learning from each other, John Smith and Pocahontas grow closer together despite the increasing animosity between their respected people.
That is until it all comes to a head following a series of very unfortunate events that lead to John Smith being captured and is set to be executed by her father. Thankfully Pocahontas arrives just in the neck of time to save him, placing her head above his own with the declaration that if he is to die, then so to must she.
What makes this film of particular distinction amongst most Disney films, or even animated films as a whole is how it portrays the relationship of Pocahontas and John Smith. More specifically, that they are the one and only “couple” to not actually get together in the end of the film.
Instead, John gets critically injured saving the life of Pocahontas’ father and has to go back to England to receive proper treatment and though he invites her to come with him, Pocahontas says that her place is still with her people but that she will always be with him forever and that she will await his eventual return.
That… is so freaking refreshing and so unbelievably vexing at the same time. I have always been a sucker for those types of romances where two people come so close to that happily ever after ending only to have to go their separate ways, for goodness knows how long. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen this happen in an animated film, and the majority of them are of the Studio Ghibli variety so technically even less than that.
Now, as this is based on history and legend let me make one thing perfectly clear. I am, nor will I ever truly be, a historian in any way, shape, or form. As many of my closest friends and family can attest, I’m lucky if I can properly recall what day of the week it is never mind the actual date. That being said, I will only mention the most glaringly obvious differences between historical fact and animated fiction.
First and foremost, Pocahontas’ name is not actually Pocahontas. In point of fact, it was common for Powhatan Native Americans to have several different names for a vast variety of reasons. Their birth names, secret names known only to those closest to them, and even changing their names around important occasions/events in their lives. Pocahontas was born with the name Matoaka, which roughly translates to Bright Stream Between the Hills. I think Disney did a sort of tongue-in-cheek nod to with the song “Just Around the Riverbend.”
She was later named Amonute, which means nothing. Not literally but in the sense that it doesn’t actually have any meaning or translation. The name of Pocahontas was actually a nickname of hers she earned as a child and most likely a reference to her rather frolicsome nature, or so historians supposed. The name Pocahontas means “the naughty one” or “spoiled child.” Pocahontas would eventually take the name of Rebecca when she became a baptized Christian.
This was also the name that her tribe primarily referred to her by towards the English because of the superstitious fear that if her true name was known to them, then the English could possibly due her harm. A trope that is actually used quite often in most fantastical settings now that I think about it…
The next, and as far as I’m concerned, most telling difference between historical fact and fantastical fiction, is one little minor detail that Disney glossed over with a vengeance. See, John Smith was about late twenties to early thirties when he met Pocahontas. As to the girl herself…
She was eleven.
… So yeah, moving on away from that uncomfortable subject, let’s talk music shall we?
Much like The Lion King, there is no contest in my choice of song that best fits the film as a whole. “Colors of the Wind” takes the word beautiful in every possible meaning. It is a song of learning to see past the differences, to look beyond what we know, and to see and learn things we otherwise pass up as being beneath our notice or not worth our time. Visually speaking… oh man, where do I even start? I suppose that the one moment, the absolute moment, that cements this song as one of the best in Disney history, is at the lines of learning how to paint with the colors of the wind. Give it a watch and I’m sure you’ll see exactly what that means.
As I stated before, you will either love this film or hate it. I’m sort on that same ground myself because while I do enjoy this film for reasons I’ll soon touch upon, I too am of the group that doesn’t quite care for the liberties this film has taken. On its own, if it were merely a story, I would gladly give it ten stars.The art is nothing short of astounding at every scene to such a degree that I could pause the film at any particular point and make a lithograph worthy screenshot. Well, most scenes because Ratcliffe is most definitely a face for radio.
As it stands, because I well and truly can’t let go the biggest change in what is otherwise an integral part of history, I give Pocahontas… six out of ten. Blast it that somewhat tragic romance ending gives it extra credit for bucking the usual Disney tradition involving romance with their characters, especially their princesses.