Critical Film Review: Pocahontas

         The film Pocahontas was produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1994 and was released in 1995. It is interesting and important to note that when looking through the list of names of the people responsible for the production of this film at all levels, what we see is a predominance of white males. This is important because these are the people who are responsible for the way in which the story is told and the portrayal of the characters in it; we are seeing the experiences and events played out on the screen through their gaze. The film is meant to tell the story of the encounter between European colonizers and the American Indian Powhatan tribe in Jamestown, Virginia. Through this film, it seems Disney was trying to portray American Indians and their culture in a positive light and do so in a politically correct manner.
            The film has received much criticism due to the fact that it was not considered to be an accurate portrayal of historical realities. It was also criticized for representing an "allegory of benign colonization," and therefore not presenting a harsh enough criticism of colonization and capitalism (Preda p. 317). But because the target audience for Disney films are children, it is assumed that an accurate (and therefore a necessarily violent and unpleasant) portrayal of historical reality would not be appropriate. It would be deemed too harsh a reality with which to confront children whom are assumed to be unprepared or undeveloped emotionally or intellectually to receive such a message. Furthermore, as Roxana Preda has noted, it would not make economic or artistic sense for Disney to present a full-blown critique of colonization, racism, or capitalism for a variety of reasons. One being that "the aim of the company [is to]... keep spectators as comfortable as possible" (Preda p. 321). If Disney were to have taken on the feat of accurate representation and social criticism it would have had to "...cross two boundaries. The first one would have been its own genre... Secondly... Disney would have had to create an anti-capitalistic, anti-colonial film, which would have undermined the very bases on which the company itself is allowed to function and thrive" (Preda p. 321, 322). Preda argues that it is therefore necessary and more useful to evaluate the film in terms of the framework under which Disney was operating from. This does not mean that the film becomes immune from critique, but that it is necessary to consider certain limitations, granted that the limitations themselves may be self-imposed and worthy of critique.
        Films created for children (and arguable adults as well) are generally designed to be palpable and elicit positive emotional response. Lessons are learned and ideas are transmitted not through critical analysis and evaluation, but through emotional responses caused by the film. In this way, the techniques used in film share similarities to those used in advertising and it is not unreasonable to consider films (especially those made for children) as a form of indoctrination whether or not that is the aim of their creators.    
        Many subtle forces of imagery and sound work together in film to shape the viewer's reception. In Pocahontas we can see these elements at work in the color and styles of clothing, bodies, and scenery as well as in the voices of the characters. Governor Ratcliffe, the antagonist of the film, is fat (symbolizing his greed) and wears dark colors (symbolizing his evil). His clothing is in sharp contrast to the other colonizers who wear more drab and practical clothing suitable for the labor they are required to perform on account of the Governor. We get the image of "witless peasants" (as Ratcliffe actually refers to them) being forced to aid the evil royal person. In this way, all the of the colonizers other than Ratcliffe are denied any complicity in the subjugation of and violence against nature and the indians. They are just doing their job, taking orders, and trying to survive. They are essentially good-natured, if only a little misled. This leads us to believe that most people are good at heart and it is only a few (in this case one) individuals who have bad intentions. And in the end, good will always win and evil (racism, violence, greed etc.) is not allowed to prevail, symbolized by the uprising of the colonizers who bind and gag the governor.
        One of the two main protagonists, John Smith is the only colonizer with an American accent, the rest of them having a variety of European accents. This is a subtle but powerful difference that unconsciously leads us to identify John Smith as an American and to therefore view Americans as being peaceful cooperators with the Indians. It is the Europeans that are ignorant and/or evil and that are responsible for colonization, not Americans who are noble like John Smith and who the viewers are encouraged to identify with. John Smith, unlike Ratcliffe or the other colonizers, does not act out of greed or blind obedience, but out of the more noble goals of freedom, adventure, and exploration. We also see these same goals mirrored in the other protagonist, Pocahontas whom we are also encouraged to identify with. They are positively highlighted as being individuals, which serves to advocate rugged individualism as a hallmark of American cultural values. We again get the impression that the colonizers who eventually came to make up America did so with these noble aspirations for freedom, adventure, and exploration and as a reaction against tyrannical and oppressive forces. John Smith and Pocahontas share these noble traits that lead them to resist the societal norms of their respective communities which allows them to become mediators and ultimately results in peace and cooperation between the two cultures.
It is likely that children viewing this film will take this fictitious encounter as being representative of colonization in its entirety. There is a happy ending and the colonizers see the wrongness of their ways and come to realize the wisdom of the indians, they go home to leave the indians in peace, end of story. But this is obviously not what happened as evidenced by the what little is left of indian culture and the wide-spread mass destruction of natural ecosystems. So while the film does not accurately represent historical or present day reality, it can be seen as at least attempting to advocate a sane reverence for nature and humans. "The logic of reason that prompts men to claim and use the land in order to create a civilization on the Western model is the same that leads them to destroy natural elements that do not serve their purposes and also to kill one another for property. The film seems to suggest that the fixation on the 'Idol of the Head' has led us to ignore the great potential that emotion and the body both have as ways of knowing and suggestions for living" (Preda p. 338). This is evident in the humanization of nature as seen through Grandmother Willow, Meeko, and Flit. Nature is a force in its own right, not something to be dominated and subverted to suit one's own wants and needs. Pocahontas and the indians are willing and receptive enough to have a dialogue with nature and because of this there is a reciprocal relationship where each party works to serve and protect the other. The colonizers lack this receptivity and willingness for dialogue, they work against nature instead of with it and it therefore refuses to help them and actually works against them as well. Grandmother Willow lifts up her roots to trip them, rain pours down on them making their work harder, they can't grow delicious corn and have to eat stale crackers instead, there are no tools for self reflection and moral guidance in the wind or the trees.
        While there is not a strong break with typical gendered conventions, there are at least mild ones. Pocahontas is represented as being a strong and athletic woman, physically and otherwise. She is brave and adventurous, yet she is also wise and protective of nature and her community. She seems to possess a positive balance of typically "feminine" and "masculine" traits. Nonetheless, her character is highly sexualized. With her thin body, bright red full and pouty lips, large eyes seemingly lined in kohl with prominent eyelashes, long flowing hair (conspicuously absent from all other parts of her body), and her remarkable cleavage she seems to take on the role of a sex object. And her partner, John Smith although possessing "positive masculine" traits is far from what most would consider feminine. He is tall and muscular with angular features. He is equally adept at shooting a gun, sailing a ship, and navigating through unfamiliar and rugged terrain unlike his partner Thomas who is a weak and inept at "being a man." Even though Thomas, too, is good-hearted we cannot imagine that he would be a suitable partner for Pocahontas because he is not "masculine" enough. I found it difficult to criticize the stereotypical link between nature and the feminine since it seemed to be used in a positive way. As Preda notes "The classical identification of woman with nature and feeling is fully operative in the Disney production. However, the film also revalues this identification, which is a well-trodden ground of patriarchal thought. The privileged link of the feminine to nature and instinct is not presented as a lack, a deficiency or a disorder, but as alternative wisdom, an alternative the West never envisaged, an option that has been invisible and impossible to the detriment of the rational paradigm" (Preda p. 329).  In watching the film, it was also difficult to not become fully emotionally absorbed, to not sympathize and identify with the plight of the indians and the natural world and strongly feel the rightness and wisdom of their ways even though much of the representation may have been stereotypical and inaccurate.

Google Analytics