Pocahontas at 25
Today is the 25th anniversary of Disney's 33rd animated classic Pocahontas. Having been released on June 23, 1995, the film is beloved by countless ages. It actually had one of the largest premieres in history in New York's Central Park to a crowd of over 100,000 and a star-studded guest list. It also had a behind-the-scenes documentary The Making of Pocahontas: A Legend Comes to Life which aired on the Disney Channel. Disney pulled out all the stops.
When I first started writing this, I wondered how much I would get into the weeds in discussing the fact that the movie is revisionist history. There is so much historically that they get wrong. Film critic Roger Ebert complained of the historical changes, "Having led one of the most itnteresting lives imaginable, Pocahontas serves here more as a simplified symbol."
I often think Disney would have been better served if they chose a Native American folktale and had both the female and male leads be of Native American origin. There were some elements that would have to be changed for a children's film. For example, Pocahontas, in actuality, was only 11 years old. So, there was no way that they could have her fall in love with John Smith as Pocahontas was originally conceived as a romance by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner and the late Director Emeritus Roy E. Disney.
Animator Glen Keane explained, "We had the choice of being historically accurate or socially responsible, so we chose the socially responsible side."
This all said, we cannot deny the fact that this was a huge step up in Native American representation for Disney considering that the last time they had Native Americans in an animated film was 1953's Peter Pan where they sang about what makes the red man red. We finally had a movie with indigenous people dressed in fairly accurate clothing and voiced by Native American actors.
"I basically am that generation where it sort of shifted from all 'Cowboys and Indians' movies where the Indians were the bad guys," said Pocahontas voice Irene Bedard, herself of Inuit and French Canadian Cree heritage, in a recent interview. "I even remember at one point having a ‘Cowboys and Indians’ birthday party, and all the kids wanted to be cowboys!"
Co-Director Eric Goldberg noted, "It would have been very easy for us to make a film that included teepees, totem poles and long, feathery headdresses, they way most people are used to seeing those images from Southwest American Indians. But, we didn’t want to do that."
"This story was really the very first positive representation of native culture," continued Bedard. "Respect for the elders, respect for the earth and respect for the animals. Those all were represented in Pocahontas. And out of all the Disney Princesses up until then, she was looking to find her own strength. She doesn’t wait for the prince to come and save her – she saves the prince."
One could see that she was a prototype for such Disney princesses as Merida from Pixar's Brave, Elsa from Frozen and Moana. Each of these strong princesses stick up for what they believe in.
As for historical accuracy, the animators and creative crew really worked on incorporating everything into their design and animation. The team spent time in Virginia doing research and talking to Native tribes. Keane actually modeled Pocahontas after two of her descendants, Shirley "Little Dove" Custalow-McGowan and Devi White Dove. Keane recalled of meeting them, "And as they stood there, I mean, I took a picture of both of them, and between their faces was Pocahontas' face in my mind – I could see her."
"We met with surviving members of the Powhatan nation," continued Goldberg. "We spoke with them and got a flavor of what they were like and what they found important. They found a sense of community very important and they wanted to see that portrayed in the film."
Pocahontas has some of the best music Disney has to offer. Songs such as "Colors of the Wind" and "Savages" speak about learning from our differences. If anything, Pocahontas, despite whatever historical complaints leveled against it, seems more relevant today as we all struggle to talk to each other about our differences in hopes that we can also see our similarities. This is such an important conversation.
“To me, its as simple as this – our similarities are much greater than our differences,” said Co-Director Mike Gabriel. "Even though we all like to rant and rave that we’re all completely different and each nation and each culture has its own idiosyncrasies and separate ideas, I think we show in the movie that we’re not all that different."
So, here's to 25 wonderful years of Pocahontas!