Pocahontas – While it was originally predicted that this picture would be a bigger success than The Lion King, such was obviously not the case. I think it was kind of a mistake for Disney to try to make an animated feature based on actual historical personages and events, although it was certainly no worse in that respect than most of the rest of what comes out of Hollywood. It wasn’t so much the story of Pocahontas and the Jamestown colony as it was that of the conflict between Europeans and Native Americans in general. It strikes me as the product of white guilt, and while it’s definitely well-meaning, it sometimes comes across as a bit awkward. While I do have a degree in history, I’m no expert on the subject, but what I’ve seen suggests that relations between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan nation were initially peaceful, with violence only erupting between them after several years. In the movie, they’re distrustful of each other right off the bat, although most of the colonists are ignorant rather than nasty, and there’s some mob mentality going on with the natives as well. The villain of the piece, pretty much symbolizing the wrong done to the Indians by European settlers in a single individual, is Governor Ratcliffe, who has an almost pathological obsession with gold.
I don’t know of any evidence that the actual John Ratcliffe was anything like this, or that the English were looking for gold in Virginia. I kind of have to wonder if they made him the villain simply because of the “rat” in his name. His dog Percy is presumably named after George Percy, Ratcliffe’s successor as governor. I do have to wonder if anyone involved in making this movie ever visited Jamestown, because there aren’t mountains and cliffs there.
I think the original colony was built in a swamp.
As for Pocahontas herself, John Smith’s writings indicate that she was about ten when they first met. The film never states her age, but she’s obviously older than that, and is shown as falling in love with Smith. Her personality is similar to that of other Disney Princesses, in that she’s headstrong and wants something different from what she’s accustomed to, and of course sings a lot. The story told by Smith, which some historians have doubted, is that she prevented her father from executing him. This does happen in the movie, but in very different circumstances from what likely really happened. Smith is voiced by Mel Gibson, which was probably considered cool at the time the movie came out, but is kind of embarrassing in retrospect. Oh, well. At least he wasn’t telling Pocahontas he’d set her house on fire with her in it. Pocahontas is accompanied by a raccoon named Meeko and a hummingbird named Flit. Neither of them talk, but a tree does. There’s a happy ending with the moral that we should all learn to put our differences aside and respect other cultures, but we all know the worst of the conflicts between European-Americans and natives were yet to come. Historical difficulties aside, the film had some good animation and songs, but plot-wise it just wasn’t one of the stronger Disney features from this era.