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What ‘Pocahontas’ tells us about Disney, for better and worse

Disney’s animated achievements — certain ones — are imprinted on our brains, in part because the company reminds us about them seemingly nonstop. Fresh from the Disney vault! Restored to its original glory!

“Wish,” which arrived last month as part of Disney’s centennial self-celebration, is a collection of callbacks to classics like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), “The Little Mermaid” (1989) and “The Lion King” (1994). Disney theme parks have recently unveiled attractions based on “Frozen” (2013) and “Moana” (2016), among others.

But there are also films in Disney’s animated canon that the image-conscious company does not talk about much, and the reasons are usually obvious. Some were box office failures. A few of the older ones traffic in racist stereotypes.

If we are going to look back at Disney’s history with animated movies, however, as the company has invited people to do with its 100th-anniversary bash, the problem films should be part of the discussion. To wrestle with Disney and its legacy — the good and the bad, the past and the present — the misfires sometimes offer as much insight as the masterworks.

Consider “Pocahontas.”
Released in 1995 at a time when Walt Disney Animation Studios was experiencing a creative renaissance, “Pocahontas” pulls from history and legend to recount — sort of — the story of the real-life Native American girl who, in 1607, supposedly saved an English settler, John Smith, after he’d been taken as prisoner by her father’s tribe. The film won two Oscars (for song and score) and was celebrated by leading critics for its vibrant color palette and magical realism (a murmuration of autumn leaves, the advice-giving Grandmother Willow). Janet Maslin, reviewing the movie for The New York Times, called it a “landmark feat of animation.”

“Pocahontas” also has some severe problems, starting with the title character. Disney depicted her not as a girl of about 11, as historians agree Pocahontas was at the time she interacted with Smith, but as an ultra-voluptuous young woman. Disney took other extreme liberties with the story, in particular inventing a romance between Pocahontas, who was voiced by Irene Bedard, and Smith (Mel Gibson). Disney higher-ups pressed the “Pocahontas” creative team to make it more like “Beauty and the Beast,” which had been a runaway hit at the box office — presto, a romance.

“Disney made a lot of unfortunate decisions with this movie,” said Angela Aleiss, a film scholar whose books include “Hollywood’s Native Americans: Stories of Identity and Resistance.”

“It should be a lesson,” she added of “Pocahontas,” which was directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. “Why not let Indigenous people tell these stories?”

Recent Disney films like the animated “Strange World,” with its gay teenage protagonist, have become cultural flashpoints. 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 (although 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 hero 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 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.

“Environmental messages are equally present and so relevant, especially today,” Johnson said.

Disney movies had always had a moral, but this went much further — and the film’s implicit political message freaked some people out: Disney is messing with our kids. The uproar helped push the company back toward lighter material, resulting in comedies like “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Lilo & Stitch.”

A similar shift is going on right now at Disney. The company has become a political punching bag, partly because it has added openly gay, lesbian and queer characters to its animated movies. The emphasis on diversity in some of Disney’s live-action films, including “The Little Mermaid,” “The Marvels” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” has also led to fan complaints. Although Disney has also received positive feedback, the blowback — and poor ticket sales for some of the films in question — has prompted Disney to retrench.

“Creators lost sight of what their No. 1 objective needed to be,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said at the Times’ DealBook Summit last month. “We have to entertain first. It’s not about messages.”

It should be noted that “Pocahontas” has plenty of fans. Some point to the clever, sweeping ways in which the film’s songs are visualized. Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid”) and Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”) wrote the music, which includes the Oscar-winning “Colors of the Wind,” sung by Judy Kuhn.

“A graceful and well-intentioned entry in the Disney canon,” Sophie Gilbert wrote in a 2015 essay in The Atlantic that defended the film as progressive and feminist. (The magazine also published letters from readers who did not agree.)

Hanay Geiogamah, a former director of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA, was hired by Disney in the 1990s to consult on “Pocahontas” and its straight-to-video sequel, “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.” In a phone interview, he called working with Disney “a really positive experience,” noting that some of his concerns about authenticity (the depiction of dancing and ceremonies, for instance) led to prerelease changes in the film.

“I understood why people were upset, and, at the time, I made my voice heard, too,” Geiogamah said. “But you have to remember, at the end of the day, this was a Disney animated fantasy. I was actually pleasantly surprised with how it turned out. Yes, there was a falsity at its core. But it also gave millions of young people a positive impression of Indian life. It wasn’t all battles and ugliness and harshness.”

The many opinions are a reminder of how powerful the Disney brand is: People care — they really care.

Affinity for the brand runs so deep that it can quickly recover when the company stumbles. Life in the Magic Kingdom goes on. Five months after “Pocahontas” arrived in theaters, tresses swinging, Disney released the first film from an experimental new animation company called Pixar. The movie was “Toy Story,” and the response was so rapturous that “Pocahontas” — and the fighting around it — started to fade into history.


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