Part 1: If You Don't Have Anything Nice To Say...
How Do You Solve A
Problem Like Pocahontas?
the good, the bad, and the ugly

See the table of contents for all the posts in this series.

Aaah, Pocahontas… I have such a conflicted relationship with this movie. Even as a nine-year-old I remember being taken aback by how I just didn't like it as much as I wanted to. And yet something about it just morbidly draws me in. It's like the Uncanny Valley of Disney Renaissance films. It's not just that it's bad. But there’s something fascinating about its badness. It has been quite strangely difficult to put my finger on what it is that makes it not work as well as the rest of the Disney Renaissance films, but I think I’ve finally articulated it for myself. If it were simply irredeemably bad, then I would just hate it and move on. There’s something about it that makes it so close to being good and yet so far that makes me obsessively want to fix it. So first I guess I should look at what I do like about it, and what makes it interesting for me even if it ultimately falls very flat.

So without further ado, the good things about Disney's Pocahontas:

1. It’s simply a gorgeous film. The depth and character of the animation, the rich color palette, the beautiful sensitivity with which it is rendered, at least visually—even though thematically it certainly isn't realized with anything near the same sense of sophistication.

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I will put up with all kinds of plot holes for this visual design.

2. I like the fact that the romantic leads actually talk to each other. You don't have that standard Disney I-just-met-you-and-I’m-in-love-with-you. You see people getting to know each other and slowly falling falling in love through dialogue (note I didn’t say it was good dialogue).

3. I like that the romance is handled more maturely, and the leads do show some real physical passion, even if their dialogue can be pretty stilted.

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And this is apparently allowed in a Disney movie. I guess the “Hellfire” sequence in Hunchback needed a little warm-up!

4. I like the fact that the main plot doesn't actually involve that much magic. This is one of those things that will cause a lot of problems down the line, and we’ll get to that, but as a concept for a mature story, it has people actually advancing the plot with human interaction and the reactions of others, not just accommodating supernatural rules.

5. I give the film major credit for the fact that it actually matters that Pocahontas’s mother is dead. We get so much of that in Disney films and it's rarely actually commented on or has any sort of emotional weight or consequences for the characters. Though, that said, this leads to some thematic problems and we’ll get to that.

6. I’m glad that the Disney Princess doesn't give up everything to be with her hero, although the ending is still an unforgivable, pointless letdown.

7. I appreciate that it takes a more serious tone than another Disney films, even though it doesn't have the coherent logic and tight styling that would actually back up that tone with mature thought.

8. I like Thomas. One, he's just a cute character. Two, I think he serves a valuable function for showing that prejudice can be perpetuated through innocence, ignorance, and the establishment of harmful cultural norms rather than merely being the province of overtly evil people.

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Squee!

9. I like the way Pocahontas and John Smith are shown moping around for several days, clearly affected by meeting each other, not knowing what to do about it, and not being able to tell their usual friends & confidantes. It’s a brief passage in the film, but I’ve always found it a very moving touch.

10. I admire the more naturalistic style of animation, and the less-cartoony faces. I know this is a minority opinion, but I feel that in the visual design of this film it really works, or at least it would if the script actually were as mature as it pretends to be.

11. The music is quite good too.

Join us next time for the multitudes of problems!

This post originally appeared on ThatGuyWithTheGlasses.com on Sunday, October 12th, 2014


Many thanks to the following reviews for helping me crystalize all the thoughts that were bugging me about this film:

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About the Author

Satiricalifragilistic grew up during the Disney Renaissance, and The Little Mermaid was the first movie she ever saw in theaters at age 3. Her mother flatly refused to let her leave the theater when Ursula got huge and terrifying, and maybe that explains her troubled psyche.

While she'll admit to being an inveterate nitpicker, she firmly believes in loving a piece of art even while criticizing it, and in the importance of engaging critically with what she loves. She has special contempt for anyone who tries to claim the politics in Disney films don't matter because "they're just movies," because she knows exactly how much the Disney Canon influenced her little gradeschool self—for good and for ill!

She loves art, design, music, dancing, movies from Hollywood's Golden Age, and British comedy...expect a lot of these to turn up in her reviews and mashups!