For all the talk about the greatness of the Disney Renaissance, it peaked pretty early and receded after really only four major successes. I wish I could include The Rescuers Down Under, but apparently only about nine people saw that one. It really began its nosedive that would last until very recently with this movie, Pocahontas. I’m going to make a slight change to the format here. Usually, I’m defending the individual movies, but in this case… yeah, I agree with the criticism. Almost everyone, of all political stripes, dislikes this movie. And I have to agree, honestly. If you’re a part of the minority who likes this movie, good for you. I’m glad, because I think a lot of hard work went into making it. I wish I could like the movie for this reason, but, no, I really can’t. I think it’s actually …bad.
So, instead of defending a movie I don’t like, I’m going to try and understand where this movie came from and what the Disney company might be doing. Remember how I said that Aladdin really succeeds because it isn’t trying too hard? It did its own thing and it did it well. However, at this point, Disney had managed to achieve success after success, and with both a Best Picture nom and all the acclaim that The Lion King has, I think the company was under a lot of pressure. This was not just another movie, they were taking chances. They had taken a big chance with The Lion King, and it paid off. They had reached new levels of technical innovation in their animation. This was supposed to be the next step, their launch into a new level of greatness, their next Oscar nom, their next classic. So, what happened? I think one of the reasons why I hate how much I hate this movie is that the company really was trying new things. This isn’t just moving away from fantasy (kind of, sort of…), but it’s an issues movie. It’s tackling history and diversity and controversial subjects and… non-white characters! This may not seem like such a big deal, but Disney has always been pretty reticent to take a progressive racial stance. It’s not just some truly unfortunate past expressions, like a crow named Jim in Dumbo, or the “Indians” in Peter Pan.
It’s that while Disney certainly has moments with really troubling racial depictions, as time went on the official stance became a very strong we-have-no-stance… stance, while at the same time teaching lessons about how it’s okay to be yourself, even if you’re different. It’s as if the company saw controversy and said, “Look, we make happy movies about singing, dancing mice. Don’t look at us. Nothing to see here.”
Consider this in contrast to what Don Bluth was doing before he Thumbelina-ed his way into sell-out obscurity. In American Tail, for example, he uses a kid-friendly format to discuss subjects as weighty as Anti-Semitism, immigration prejudice, political corruption, and exploitative labor.
And, while Disney tiptoed up to actual issues in the past, what with Fox and the Hound being about two characters driven apart by societal expectations, their lesson was actually pretty subtle. Yeah, it’s really sad when Todd and Copper can’t be friends anymore, but the movie doesn’t really answer the question of whether or not this is wrong in the real, non-cartoon, non-talking-animal world. On the one hand, kudos for subtle messages and making kids think (as they fight back their tears…), but one cannot help but notice that the Disney company really did shy away from race as an issue at all. Considering that it took until Atlantis for the company to animate a major character who is also a black man, you get an idea of what Disney is comfortable with.
And, in some sense, Disney may have also understood its own company’s cultural limitations, because when they depict non-white cultures it’s usually kind of… awkward. Not always. Lilo and Nani are fantastic characters in what I will call a very underrated movie, and the cast of The Emperor’s New Groove is sort of progressive in that race is never an issue at all. How many all-Native American movies are there where the focus isn’t on race? Because, really, people, it’s not like everyone who isn’t white goes around thinking about how not-white they are all the time. “I woke in my not-white way, and then not-whited in a not-white fashion through my not-white thoughts and not-white life, which is totally defined by my not-whiteness…”
However, whenever the company tries to make bring their race relations to the forefront, it does come across as pretty messy and awkward, as well as trying way, way too hard to be inoffensive and bland.
Another risk that the company took, and one which I think is actually far riskier than what turned into some very flaccid race relations, would be the artistic direction. Like I said before, The Lion King had really conquered any previous animation limitations from past productions. It’s big, beautiful, detailed, fast-moving, and the design is really interesting as it is actually based on a lot of life drawings. It’s Disney art building primarily on Disney art, as its own art form. In Pocahontas, however, they really decided to push the envelope. The characters look radically different from anything Disney had done before. The big-eyes and soft curves, these are replaced by far more realistic faces and a more adult look to the entire production. The landscapes are big and detailed, and the animation pushes the cinematography illusions and use of CGI further than any previous film. And, honestly, I think that may contribute to a part of the problem. Disney’s last animated humans didn’t look like this. Audiences were given not only the promise of this historical epic dealing with some hefty race issues, but also this brand new, mature look. It’s a little jarring to go from something like Aladdin to this. I feel like all this rush to be greater and greater as a studio may have left some viewers behind. If it was just the new animation style with a fairytale story, I think the movie wouldn’t feel so disappointing. But when you tell a story that fails as hard as this one does, and tell it with animation as technologically brilliant and artistically interesting as this, then it just feels extra disappointing. After all, this was by no means the only white-guy-learns-about-land-from-native-other-archetype-story of the ’90s. But where something like Fern Gully gets off easier is that it’s a silly fairy story that looks like this:
Pocahontas was a real person, and these are much stronger issues, and the story tells itself with really terrible plot devices (magic trees, magic Babel Fish leaves, cute animal sidekicks, a super flamboyant villain, cheesy romance), and yet it still looks like it’s supposed to be a good movie: So, why does this story fail so hard? Well, part of it is that despite trying really hard to be so big and epic, the studio just would not relinquish that ’90s Disney formula. This basically forms the bulk of everyone’s problems with the movie, right or left. It’s super historically inaccurate. Meaning, it has basically nothing to do with history. At all. John Smith is turned into this long-haired Ken Doll, and the pre-pubescent Pocahontas becomes this Disney Princess who wants something “more” (this time it really is super vague) and doesn’t want to marry unless it’s for love, and there are cute animal sidekicks and big musical numbers and a big, fay villain. If Disney had really believed, fully, in pushing this project all the way, instead of just trying too hard with their old formula, we could have had a really good movie. Instead, it just feels really jarring, like two genres that really shouldn’t be together. And, I feel like Pocahontas’s position as a princess is probably the reason why they chose this story at all and shoehorned in their ’90s formula. While historical accuracy is not necessary for a great movie, in this case the storytelling choices do not work. I don’t think anyone wanted to see an analogue for Native-Colonial race relations played out by a pug and a raccoon, or have the entirety of First Nations culture reduced to safe, non-threatening hippie ways. This “white man’s Indian” problem is really one of the major issues with this and many other depictions of First Nations peoples. When the culture began to move away from treating Native peoples like Saturday morning cartoon villains and caricatures, the result was unfortunately not to look at the actual peoples and understand them, or let them tell their own stories. To this day, it’s pretty unusual to find movies made by Native directors, or even casting Native actors. And, while I know Johnny Depp does have some mixed heritage, I’d like to point out that he was still a really safe, white choice for The Lone Ranger.
The thing is, representation is almost always seen through a white lens, and when stereotypes moved from negative to positive it was still in a very white perspective. In order to side with Native peoples, the people had to be utterly angelic, and usually analogues for bourgeois hippie values. This is troublesome because it makes the First Nations Peoples unhuman, as if to say that the only way genocide and systematic oppression is wrong is if the oppressed are angels. Because if they had flaws like everyone else in the world, it’d be okay? That creates a very troubling undercurrent in this new, sugar-coated race relations paradigm, and one which we see today in many situations of violence, where, for examples, victims of crimes begin to be judged for their moral character rather than their legal rights.
The story is also just not very challenging, focusing on a really vague notion of not cutting down sycamores and remembering that even rocks have spirits and names, or whatever. It’s not that interested in discussing race, and really sugar coats that issue.
I have heard some right-wing critics say that this is a lefitst, anti-white movie. I really could not disagree more. The movie reduces the entire conflict and all of the race relations therein to one, single, probably-gay bad guy (with pigtails) who just wants gold. The rest? Oh, well, there was a misunderstanding, but in the end everyone can just get along, because that’s totally what actually happened. It utterly exonerates colonialism by placing the blame on one rogue, gay stereotype of a leader and his love of gold and disrespect for trees.
Hell, John Smith literally takes a bullet for Powhatan in the end –you know, after he learns his valuable lesson about rolling around in nature and not wondering what it’s worth.
The real lesson here: Trees be good, greed be bad. So, basically, proto-Avatar. It doesn’t challenge viewers at all, and keeps everything in this safe, artificially happy world that never existed.
Now, some people argue that Disney doesn’t need to make a more realistic movie because it’s for kids. Kids don’t need to know all the gritty, depressing details. I think that if this is the case then Disney really should have adapted something else. However, if you really look at that argument, consider what it means. “It’s for kids, therefore the first time they are likely to learn about this really important, historical issue! Let’s make sure it’s totally false, so as to forever color their interpretation of the events with lies!”
No. I don’t mean that we should necessarily show every drop of historical blood to our three-year-olds, but kids can handle the truth. And the truth did not involve magic tree spirits.
So, I’ve been pretty negative about this movie, and this is supposed to be an series about defending Disney. So, what is positive about the movie? Well, again, the animation is just really good. And, for those who do like this movie, I think that’s a part of the reason why. I think a lot of outdoorsy people enjoy it because it’s Disney really romanticizing nature. And, as far as art goes, American arts have a long history of this.
In fact, American Romanticism is really about nature. While Europe was looking at its cultural past, America, being young and without things like ruins and castles, looked instead to the land as both prize and heritage, a symbol for cultural values.
I think this is part of the reason why you have really pretty right-wing Americans who are still very passionate about the landscape and devoted to things like the National Parks system –which, by the way, is a really underrated green achievement.
While I think romanticism has a lot of flaws, not the least of which being its annoying habit of whitewashing everything and not noticing reality…
…I do think that some of this romantic view of nature is good. The US really does do some great work in maintain wildlands. Living in the UK, a place where wildness is really quite limited, I really do appreciate the fact that the US has this tie to the land. It’s so ubiquitous that I think it often gets missed, especially by coastal, urban environmentalists who sometimes see the lack of eco-speak in rural areas as a sign of right-wing anti-earth ideology. And, this really isn’t always the case, even if some of these same people are not informed about, say, climate change or energy. Often times, the supposed “redneck” is actually living a very green life, especially when it comes to living off the land and having a cultural identity tied to it. After all, the guy hunting and fishing his own food, and living simply in the countryside, is more green than someone who drinks exotic coffees and eats imported “world foods” and goes on lots of expensive vacations.
I think this almost unspoken tie to nature, even among people who are verbally very anti-environmentalist, is part of what the movie gets right. It doesn’t get nature itself right, because Virginia looks nothing like this movie (the movie looks more like Alaksa, really). But, it gets the viewer’s emotions about wildlife right, the same ideas that fill Westerns with grand vistas and inspire states like Colorado to make propaganda videos like this.
So, despite its Captain Planet goofiness, it does understand something about how Americans view nature, even if it’s totally scientifically inaccurate.
And, I think that scenes of Pocahontas canoeing and running around the woods really appeal to outdoorsy people. That’s actually pretty accurate, what with its jubilant celebration of ultra-romanticised American landscapes. I think outdoorsy people really do feel this way and have this romantic love of beautiful places and outdoor adventures.
Otherwise, I do think that this was an important step for Disney to take, even if it stumbled all over itself and ended up sending the company in a pretty sharp downward spiral. There really are more than just attractive white people in this world. And, pretending like race doesn’t exist is really taking a pretty bad stand in the entire situation. It’s not keeping out of politics to offer zero visibility to a group. Doing nothing is really very political, and actually expressing that, yes, these people exist, was kind of a big deal. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
Visibility is a major issue for media and society, in general. It’s why people want to see heroes and main characters who look like them. People who say that they want more female superheroes, or more multiracial movies, et cetera, are not saying that they cannot enjoy a movie with white leads or male leads. It’s saying that they want to be recognized as existing, too. Not seeing yourself, or only seeing yourself as the sidekick, comic relief, damsel, or even villain, is actually really damaging for how certain groups will perceive themselves. I would suggest reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for more on that, especially the scene about white baby dolls.
It is important in a society to not marginalize a group by silencing them or rendering them invisible, or regulating them to strict roles. So, while Pocahontas is the safest, least-challenging depiction of a fairly fetishized character (let’s be real here)…
…she at least exists. It’s also why I tend to forgive Aladdin’s race relations, because at least they are offering visibility to Middle Eastern peoples. (They also do it better because it’s make-believe, race is incidental to character types, and the characters are just better.) It might be pure fantasy, but in a world where Middle Eastern prejudice is pretty rampant, it’s a good way to give kids characters who are at least very universal and relatable.
This movie isn’t as successful as Aladdin because it falls in the category of trying both way too hard and not hard enough. It’s trying too hard with the Disney formula, but not hard enough with the actual story. However, at least the company is acknowledging that, yes, different races exist, and giving some recognition to this fact. It’s not much, it is whitewashed pretty badly, and it’s not a great film. But, at least there’s that. Also, trees.
Oh my gosh, trees, people!!!