What ‘Pocahontas’ Tells Us About Disney, for Better and Worse

Recent Disney films like the animated “Strange World,” with its gay teenage protagonist, have become cultural flash points. But “Pocahontas” prompted a full-blown fracas. Some people accused Disney of whitewashing history — for leaving out the fact, for instance, that Pocahontas died at 21, perhaps of smallpox, after being taken to London and paraded around as an example of a “civilized savage.” Others blasted “Pocahontas” for depicting some white settlers as bigoted plunderers (though historians would argue this was accurate). Some Native Americans winced at the ways in which the film perpetuated the Good Indian stereotype, which posits that worthy Native Americans were those who helped white immigrants. Psychologists complained that Disney’s rendering of the heroine gave girls yet another impossible body standard to live up to.

For these reasons, “Pocahontas” lives in a netherworld at Disney.

The company does not hide it. The movie is available on Disney+, and the character is designated an official Disney Princess. “Wish” contains a couple of subtle references to the film. But bring up “Pocahontas” at Disney headquarters, and people get visibly tense. The vibe is: Let’s please change the subject. A couple of years ago, Disney decided that “Pocahontas” would be one of the few animated hits that would not be remade as a live-action spectacle. Too fraught, especially in the social media era. (“Pocahontas” was very much a hit. It cost about $112 million in today’s dollars, and collected $707 million — less than the Disney movies that preceded it, but a lot of dough all the same.)

Disney declined to comment for this article.

Animation historians contend that “Pocahontas” is more important than most people realize — that the film’s challenges have obscured its true standing in Disney’s animated oeuvre.

“Pocahontas,” for instance, “marked a new turn in Disney storytelling toward empowered heroines,” said Mindy Johnson, an animation scholar whose books include “Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation.” Johnson added, “Many credit this to ‘Mulan.’ But ‘Pocahontas’ paved the way.”

Despite its invented romance, the film ends with Pocahontas spurning John Smith’s invitation to go with him to England. She chooses to stay with her tribe.

“Pocahontas” was the first animated Disney film to focus on a woman of color. It was the first (and only) time that Disney made an animated movie about a real person. And in many ways, it was Disney’s first overt “issues” movie for children. Developed in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, “Pocahontas” explored the idea that “if we don’t learn to live with one another, we will destroy ourselves,” as Peter Schneider, then Disney’s animation president, put it in “The Art of Pocahontas” by Stephen Rebello.

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