Part 2: ...Then Come Sit By Me!
How Do You Solve A
Problem Like Pocahontas?
the good, the bad, and the ugly

Start at the beginning of this series or catch up on previous posts on the table of contents.

In Part 1: If you don't have anything nice to say..., I started off with what made this deeply flawed film worthy of attention and critique.

Well, with that out of the way, let’s get into the much longer and not-at-all ordered list of things I just can’t stand about Pocahontas:

Disclaimer: this is not going to be yet another retread of all the historical inaccuracies in the film—although that is glaringly obvious in the film and our reactions to it. Rather, borrowing from Nostalgia Critic’s ideas in his "Is it Right to Nitpick?" video, I’m going to look at all the reasons why the film doesn’t seduce us to overlook the historical accuracies, in much the same way we easily do with Mulan or Aladdin. So, these are going to be the story problems, the things that leave us feeling emotionally unfulfilled by the movie, that we then rationalize with our intellectual knowledge that the movie is historically inaccurate, and the things that render it all the more racially insensitive through its well-meaning, ignorant clunkiness.

1. Sad to say, the main thing that’s a problem with Pocahontas is Pocahontas. This isn’t something that occurred to me when nine-year-old me saw it for the first time, and frankly the other gaping plot holes below bothered me even more when I watched it as an adult. But I couldn’t shake the fact that I had to agree with every reviewer who said she was dull, even though it’s rather hard to articulate why: she whitewater rafts, she jumps off cliffs, she challenges others’ values and assumptions and stands up for her beliefs. I mean, she *should* be interesting…but she isn’t. I’ve come to feel this has to do with a lack of motivation. She really has no character arc. What does she want? Not to settle down, whatever that means. So she falls for someone adventurous but then, with no explanation or story development or internal turmoil, she assumes a role as a stabilizer among her people.

2. Pocahontas, as presented in this film, is actually a pretty weak-willed person when it comes right down to it. She just smiles awkwardly and accepts the engagement necklace from her father and doesn’t actually voice her disagreements with him, and she does NOTHING to speak up for John Smith when he’s accused of murder. Now, I realize it’s not impossible for works of fiction to have an indecisive protagonist and be interesting,


This one, I’m told, did rather well.

But the point is, the story itself has to conceptualize dithering as a PROBLEM. Pocahontas doesn’t do that—it has her be feisty and individualistic when the story finds it convenient, and then she just clams up so we can have our contrived set pieces based on obvious misunderstandings that wouldn’t happen if people just talked to each other. And then it has the gall to pretend her pointless dithering is an epic moral dilemma. Case in point: she doesn’t even *try* to tell her father that John Smith is innocent. She just says “but Father!” and “I was only trying to help” and that’s it. No information about the actual exculpatory evidence. Nine-year-old me knew well enough to be furious about this one. She seriously takes it when her father says “because of your foolishness Kocoum is dead!” She doesn’t counter that Kocoum is dead because of his own damn propensity for violence, or even try to state what happened. It gets worse. All the dramatic tension around her leading up to the morning of the execution is just pure pointless dithering. “Should I try to save an innocent man who’s about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit?” Yes. Yes, you should. Glad I could help you with that. Seriously?! It’s not like Jasmine has a reputation for being one of the stronger Disney Renaissance Princesses, but you’ve got to give her credit, as soon as Aladdin is falsely accused, she immediately and clearly defends him with “He didn’t kidnap me, I ran away!” in her very next utterance.


There—was that really so hard?!

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, Pocahontas’s whole story arc neatly dispatched by Princess Jasmine so quickly you don’t even have time to realize how much stronger and braver she is than someone who jumps off 200-foot cliffs. (See #1 as to how Pocahontas’s impressive feats fail to make her interesting.) Also, was she seriously considering just not showing up to the execution at all? She was going to let John die a horrible death, all alone, without the solace of a single person he knows? Holy shit what a selfish asshole!

3. Why is Pocahontas mad at Thomas for killing Kocoum? This is a perfect example of characters in this movie having the emotions that suit the plot at that moment, rather than having the plot unfold according to genuine & believable emotions of the characters. I mean, if someone you love does something horrible and dies as a result, I can understand a certain degree of denial and projection. But we’re given no indication that Pocahontas loves Kocoum, or that she doesn’t understand that Kocoum was directly and maliciously putting John’s life at risk. I could even tolerate her being grief stricken and angry *at Kocoum’s corpse* for bringing this on himself, and/or just generally being traumatized, but the reaction to Thomas makes no sense. While we’re on the subject…

4. I’m sorry, I’m seriously supposed to believe that Thomas shot into a writhing mass of THREE fighting people and got off a perfect clean shot on Kocoum? WHAT? For one thing, he knows he’s a bad shot, and should have the basic sense not to put everyone else in danger like that. Even with a GOOD shot, considering the weaponry of the day that situation would be just as likely to kill Pocahontas or John. Even as a child I knew early-seventeenth-century muskets could not be trusted to do that, and nowadays this scene just inspires violent face palming.

5. Why the hell doesn’t Pocahontas just straight up tell her father that John Smith is innocent as soon as he’s dragged in?


Random graffiti hooligans: also possessed of greater moral clarity than our heroine.

I mean, I can understand why John wants Thomas to get away safely—but why does Pocahontas? In the last scene, she was furious with Thomas for killing Kocoum (which itself makes no sense, see #3), and she wants to protect John. Does it make any sense that she’s going to agree with his decision to spare Thomas when she stands to lose the love of her life in favor of a random kid she’s ostensibly blaming for ruining everything?

6. Even then, she doesn’t have to even implicate Thomas at all. Thomas is gone. All she has to say is “It was some other Englishman, I couldn’t see him through the trees and he ran off right afterwards.” That’s it. This shouldn’t be a particularly hard sell since Kocoum was shot and John Smith DIDN’T HAVE A GUN WITH HIM. Seriously, movie. Seriously.

Join us next time for even more multitudes of problems!

This post originally appeared on on Monday, October 13th, 2014.

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


  1. Your entire analysis ignore one of the central plot themes. Pocahontas is a girl who, through out the movie, is struggling to reconcile her independent thoughts and spirit with the culture she grew up in respects. The moments you point to where she is supposedly not living up to her independent self are the moments in which that struggle is taking place. The conclusion of the movie, the moment where she saves John Smith is where this theme comes to a head and her independent self trumps the culture in which she grew up.

    1. The trouble is, the movie does not actually communicate that cultural norm AT ALL. Also, she has no problem WHATSOEVER being a free spirit throughout the first part of the movie, and she has no problem talking back to her father at the beginning of the movie and when John Smith is dragged in (whether she does either effectively is another matter entirely, but it's not like we see someone who is holding back: she just can't communicate for shit). Moreover, Kekata and her father are presented as people who accept her independent self from literally the very first thing they say about her. So, even if the movie is trying to imply she is rebelling against a conformist culture (a claim for which I do not see any textual evidence*), it's not really showing her struggling with it or questioning those values. That whole conversation with Grandmother Willow about finding her path would have gone a hell of a lot differently if there were actually a cultural imperative for her not to choose her own path, but Grandmother Willow never says anything that would indicate any cultural resistance--quite the opposite, she tells her to listen for spirits and never indicates this independence would be unusual in this culture or a problem to others. There is nothing beyond the generic sense that she wants one thing and her father wants another, but we are not given any indication that this culture expects the father's preference to be more powerful than in any run-of-the-mill teenage growing pains. If she really had a problem with her culture's expectations of her, she would have expressed frustration with the people who were holding her back instead of acting like her problems were insurmountable, and she wouldn't have spoken up ineffectually all those times. If her independence & talking back were actually a problem, people would have commented on it even with the inane statements she made, and they don't.

      *by counterexample, the Disney Renaissance was otherwise really good at communicating what characters' strictures were. We KNOW Ariel can't go to the surface, and isn't supposed to like humans. We KNOW Belle is frowned upon by her town for being an aloof bookworm. We KNOW Jasmine has to get married and can't leave the palace walls. We KNOW Mulan is expected to get married and could be killed if she is discovered as a soldier. Compared to that, what exactly do we see of Pocahontas's cultural expectations? Nothing.


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!