Part 4: Why Do We Still Have So Many Gloves?!
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.

Here are my final 6 problems with the structure and themes of this movie.

13. Don’t listen with your heart. Try to pump blood with your ears. Everyone makes fun of this little bit of lampshading (warning, link goes to TV Tropes!) in every Pocahontas review ever, and that’s because it’s fucking ridiculous.


True fact: there is literally nothing too ridiculous to be found on Etsy.

Who understands English and when in this movie? Ostensibly, Pocahontas understands English when she starts to listen to her heart. Except that before that, John Smith made a joke about eating hardtack and she clearly giggled at it. That makes no kinds of sense. Next we have all the scenes where everyone who has not listened with their heart and is not Pocahontas can understand all the other characters…which is every single scene that has a person from both sides in it!

14. The whole Meeko and Percy thing—it’s trite, it’s merchandise-grubbing, it is so disconnected from the rest of the plot. Not to mention that—it isn’t a subplot, it IS the plot, just re-enacted in pantomime, and more simplified. The thing is, as just about everybody and their Aunt Vivienne has already pointed out, the ACTUAL plot’s moral lesson is already too simple. Having a subplot to teach a lesson that was already hammered home over-obviously in the main plot doesn’t just double the stupidity, it squares it. More than that, though: the Percy/Meeko subplot teaches the lessons of Pocahontas BADLY. As Nostalgia Chick put it, “Right down to the time the Indians STOLE OUR BOWL OF CHERRIES!” Seriously—rewatch all the scenes with Percy and Meeko: Meeko is always the aggressor, always taking what isn’t his, and Percy is understandably frustrated at being bullied. I hope I don’t need to point out why having the Native American representative be the aggressor in this fight is rather a cheap trick. Not only that, but the Percy/Meeko subplot actively DISinforms us about the nature of the conflict and its fallout. It presents this conflict as something that could just be fixed by saying “Let’s all get along!” and switching costumes, and pretends that all this genociding was just a misunderstanding about different cultures (no, little boys and girls: stealing cherries is always wrong), rather than the demonization of other cultures being an instrumental part of self-justifying land- and resource-grabs.

15. So, apparently Pocahontas’s mother was just like her and Powhatan truly loved her… so why does he show absolutely no insight into Pocahontas’s character for most of the movie? If he had this great marriage to this wonderful free spirit, why would he think for a second Pocahontas would be happy with this arranged marriage and would settle down in the tribe? Did Pocahontas’s mother die in some horrible whitewater rafting accident that has now soured Powhatan on free spiritedness? Pro tip, movie: if you’re going to give your characters layers, those layers actually have to stack up properly.


Movie, yer doin it rong.

16. That dream—what the hell is the point of it? It’s not that interesting, for one thing. The compass symbolism is glaringly obvious from the instant John Smith shows it to her, but on any deeper level—does it mean anything? Is her path necessarily English? Does her path involve being with the proprietor of said compass? What actually is her path at the end of the movie? She saves John Smith, great…but then she stays put and doesn’t follow through on what all the symbolism in the movie has been building up to (again, the whole implications of abandoning one’s dream for a man have their own implications and I’m glad they didn’t go with it, but they leave a huge gaping void where that trope should be). Not only that, but the dream doesn’t seem to be guiding her very well: her lover gets a life-threatening injury, she is left alone and heartbroken…so was this supposed to be her path? Was she correct to try to follow this path?

Subpoint: the necklace—what is the point of it at the end of the movie? What has been repaired that it is symbolizing? Her arranged marriage to Kocoum? Well, obviously not. Her getting married at all? But she’s choosing not to. Her spiritual bond with her mother? That was never in question throughout the entire movie. Her relationship with her father? She fixed that herself, and the raccoon and pug had fuck-all to do with it, and more importantly, she already knows that’s fixed before the necklace comes back. The Native-Colonist diplomatic relationship? What in the necklace would possibly symbolize that?

17. The writing is just plain shoddy. There are so many times where characters are asking questions they already know the answer to: “Are you coming on this voyage too?” (Why else would he be getting on the boat? Plus, did you seriously sign your life away to the Virginia Company for a transatlantic voyage with no idea who the captain would be?), “Digging?”/“Let’s not forget what the Spanish found when they came to the new world—GOLD, mountains of it!” (Everyone on the ship has been fantasizing about all this gold for MONTHS, and we’ve seen them do it—why do they forget now?!), “It’s Smith—they’ve got him!” “Who got him?” “The savages!” (Da fuck?! There is literally no other Them that could have gotten him!). This would be a minor nitpick, except for me it exposes a more fundamental problem: no one making this movie seemed to identify with it. With good artistic creations, you get a sense that the people making them are saying “I love this.” With bad artistic creations (and especially corporate committee-driven creations), you get the sense that the people making them are thinking “Other people will love this.” No one creating this thing identified with the characters. No one put themselves in the characters’ places and thought “what does it feel like to be Thomas in this scene?” or “How would I react if I were in this situation?” There’s just no theory of mind here. And then there’s just blatant idiotic exposition, worst offender being:

Pocahontas: The compass? Spinning arrow!

Grandmother Willow: It’s the arrow from your dream!”

You tell ‘em, George!

It’s like they were so convinced they had this really deep, important Oscar-winning story (and they seemed to think they could will an Oscar into existence the same way Bush & company thought they could be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq simply because they wanted to be!) so they didn’t even bother to edit the screenplay. I understand in development that you’re going to start out with some rough dialogue, with the sense that characters will have some back-and-forth, but they never went back and added the content! It would be like Paul McCartney just left a few lines about scrambled eggs in “Yesterday” and didn’t think it would be detrimental to the tone of the piece at all.

Paul McCartney and Jimmy Fallon perform "Scrambled Eggs" (embed disabled)

ProTip: share the good version with the world first, and then people will be charmed by its humble beginnings.

18. I don’t like this ending.


(“Don’t like the ending, my dear duke?”)

Yes, I know, it’s supposed to make it more serious and thoughtful. It doesn’t. It’s just pretentious and Oscar-grubbing. Yes, great movies are more likely to have sad endings than fluffy movies are, but it does not follow that by tacking on a sad ending a fluffy movie suddenly becomes Oscar-worthy. Firstly, it’s just such a goddamn let-down…and the flimsy excuse that he had to go back to England for medical care, blegh! (No, don’t tell me that this happened to the real John Smith. The real John Smith was burned in a gunpowder accident. He did not have penetrating intra-abdominal trauma. That was not a survivable injury in 1607. Even if he didn’t exsanguinate, he would have gotten peritonitis within days and died a gruesome, febrile, feculent, painful death. Besides, with all the pure fuckery of history in this movie, THIS is the one point we’re suddenly going to strive for accuracy on? Dear Maude, WHY?!?!). I honestly would have tolerated this more if he just died in her arms. Nine-year-old me was VERY clear on this point: English medicine would have been totally incapable of handling that kind of injury, and was so chock-full of harmful quackery he probably would have been safer with the Native Americans, and that’s even *before* you take into account the months on the Atlantic (an ambulance, that ship is not). But more importantly than that, a sad ending needs support in the dramatic structure of the story. In Romeo & Juliet, their impulsiveness, the increasing violence of this vendetta, and the misguided attempts at subterfuge are mounting towards a situation where a tragic outcome is inevitable. In Casablanca, the whole film is working up to who Ilsa will choose, and the moral implications of that choice feature heavily throughout the whole movie. Hell, even in Moulin Rouge, Satine’s dying is a pervasive theme throughout the story, it is flash-forwarded, as people know or suspect she’s sick and that plays into their machinations. On the other hand, the ending of Pocahontas is EXACTLY like Critic shooting Floss out of nowhere just for a sad ending.


Shown: what Disney thought would win them Best Picture.

Everything in the narrative structure builds up to one thing, the main conflict concludes, and then suddenly BLAM, sad ending. Not good at all.

So, those are my gripiest of gripes. Not the textbook reasons why this film isn’t perfect, but what really stands in the way of my loving it as a Disney Renaissance formative factor of my childhood. Basically, this movie is like people had an Oscar-winning movie carefully described to them, but never delved into what actually supported that edifice. They built the outer semblance of a serious picture instead of laying a foundation of something genuine. It’s a cargo cult “Beauty and the Beast” and unsurprisingly, the Oscar never arrived.

Join me next time when I present a modified story & treatment that might actually fix this (I told you, this movie awakens my obsessive-deconstruct-and-fix-it makeover instincts like nothing else!) and turn it into a legitimately good Disney movie.

This post originally appeared on on Sunday, October 25th, 2014.

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

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing these! I just watched it on Netflix to be able to understand your review. I hadn't seen it since it was in theaters, and always had a bad but unclear memory of it. I think it was mostly my dad saying a bunch of racist things afterward that I was too young to understand but knew were hurtful anyway.
    Watching it again was not as bad as I expected- but it was still a big stew of nonsense. So thanks for sorting apart the stew!


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!