Making the Grades
After years of perfecting the art of fairytale princesses, Mouse House animators tackled their first real-life figure, Pocahontas. And perhaps she was the ideal choice because the facts about this legendary daughter of a Powhatan Indian Chief were so sketchy there was ample room for imagination.
Painting a picture of a girl worthy of a nickname that translates into Little Mischief, Disney's Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard) is a spirited young woman questioning convention and seeking to find her own path. In her wanderings, she accidentally discovers a group of pale-faced sailors, just setting ashore. Curious, she follows one of them until their tracks cross and they accidentally come face-to-face.
Adventurous Englishman John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson) has plenty of past experience exploring "New Worlds." Still, his cocky confidence is shaken when he meets the beautiful Indian princess. Obviously not what he was expecting to find, their shared conversation (they conveniently speak the same language) teaches him things "he never knew, he never knew."
However, the rest of the Virginia Company doesn't share his new perspective of the "savages." Nor do the other Indians understand Pocahontas' soft spot for the white settlers. With tensions between the Europeans and the natives growing as fast as the young couple's love for each other, the two will have to use all the courage they possess to prevent the factions from going to war. (The conflict between the groups results in some name-calling, racial slurs, and arrow/gunshot exchanges. An injury and death are depicted - no blood is shown.)
While historians debate the details, and whether or not Pocahontas tried to save John Smith's life, there is enough evidence to conclude she did positively influence the peace process.
But such arguments are of little consequence to the creators of this film. Diving headlong into the folklore, they surfaced with a tale as timeless as Romeo and Juliet, paying tribute to the civility of Aboriginal culture and acknowledging the exploitive motives of some of the earliest Americans. Saving authenticity for such things as renderings of the Susan Constance ship, they simply rely on artistic licence for everything else, like the shoulder and midriff-baring costumes drawn on the female characters, and the whimsical personalities of sidekicks Meeko (John Kassir) and Flit (Frank Welker).
Viewers would also be wise to adopt a similar attitude. Don't watch Pocahontas expecting a biography. Instead, enjoy this visually beautiful movie and its Academy Award winning soundtrack ("Best Original Score" and "Best Song" for Colors of the Wind) for the messages it teaches: Respecting those who are different, seeking to solve conflict through non-violent means, and realizing the power for good one person can have when they are brave enough to stand up for their convictions.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Pocahontas.
Looking at Disney animations over the years is an interesting way of examining our culture’s evolving definition of what constitutes a beautiful female body. What differences do you see between heroines such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and more resent figures like Ariel, Jasmine, and Pocahontas.
When Pocahontas released in 1995, it stirred up some controversy about how this historical figure was portrayed. For a sampling of opinions and some of the facts behind the movies’ namesake, you might want to check out the following sites: Four portraits of Pocahontas and some of her life’s details are found here:
A descendant of Pocahontas compares her story to the Disney film here: http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/1001/poca.html
The late chief of the Powhatan tribe responds to the movie here: http://www.powhatan.org/pocc.html