From Rugrats to The Simpsons, at some point in our lives we’ve devoted time to watching cartoons. Whether you have been depriving your inner child of animation for who-knows-how long or are an active Disney/Nickelodeon/comic strip-phile like I am, this is an inside look into something you may not know about animation. Enjoy this free issue of the Toon Times.
When I watch Disney movies these days, I always do so with a careful reflection on changes in the stories. Back when The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan or Tarzan came out, the younger me was not willing or able to watch with much scrutiny. For many of us, this was the first look we had into traditional fairytales and folklore. And as children, we never questioned the stories behind these films, never looked to uncover the seediness and intrigue behind our favorite films.
But in recent years, I have spent quite a bit of time looking back at the films of the Disney Golden Age, thirsting for more knowledge of the origins of the films and learning new aspects of characters and stories that perhaps spoiled any romanticized notion I may still have about many of the characters in Disney films.
A stand out example is the film Pocahontas.
We all watched it when we were in diapers. We marveled at the colors of the wind, thought about trees and listening with our hearts and wondered why John Smith sounded like an American while most everyone else had either a Scottish or an English accent. But the discontinuities of the story versus reality did not begin and end with Mel Gibson playing an English colonizer.
Truthfully, it might have been nice - had that been the case.
Father Knows Best
Pocahontas was indeed the daughter of Native American Chief Powhatan, but the filial relationship between the two of them could perhaps have been blown out of proportion. Powhatan was said to have had dozens of wives whom he would impregnate, have bear his children and then support until they found husbands.
So, while the image of Disney's Pocahontas as the only daughter and light of her father's life is one that tugs at the heartstrings of the audience, it actually has little historical credence. Like Ariel in The Little Mermaid or Belle in Beauty and the Beast, the goal here was to humanize characters, making sense of their motivations and proving them worthy of our respect.
If Powhatan had been seen as a womanizing chieftain, would we have believed he was worthy of leading a tribe? Would we have expected him to grant a reprieve to John Smith? Probably not.
But a doting father has other incentives; he is regarded with more humane expectations.
John Smith himself, regardless of how he is portrayed, is a character in need of some scrutiny and understanding.
Nearly 30 when he arrived in Jamestown, Smith was nowhere near Pocahontas in age or emotional cognition. He was an industrious settler who was (by his own account) captured by Pocahontas' tribe. He would later recount that Pocahontas jumped in front of him to save him from being murdered by the tribe.
He would subsequently cultivate a friendship with Pocahontas. However, any portrayal of intimate companionship - especially love - are doubtful. Pocahontas was estimated to be 12 years of age to Smith's 30.
Additionally, the debacle with Pocahontas' intended being murdered at the hands of a colonist that resulted in Smith's captivity in the film is merely a story. In reality, Pocahontas chose to marry John Rolfe (as she does in the film's sequel) and return with him to England.
None of Pocahontas' love interests in the film are in any way representational of themselves in history. Perhaps the closest would be John Rolfe, whom she did marry and travel to England with.
But as for the long-lived and loved romance between her and John Smith, the relationship that made fans all over the world angry at the sequel to the film that almost completely omits Smith as a leading male, little came from fact. And Pocahontas in reality, relationships and all other things considered, was not quite so heroic either.
“If I Never Knew You,” I might be glad
There is this notion of Pocahontas as this feminist model of earthly connection and strong intentions. Though she is beautiful, she has solid connections to family and nature that tie her to the New World even when faced with the opportunity to stay with John Smith and travel to England.Pocahontas eventually took on the name Rebecca. She was embraced by English society, considered a princess of the New World despite being one of many of Powhatan's children and not necessarily granted rights of Native American “royal” lineage.
As for any notion of connection to the earth or belief in “listening with your heart,” it seems all of that is lost in the fables of Grandmother Willow. Pocahontas herself became an ordinary member of British society once she left the New World. She bore John Rolfe a child, Thomas, and lived until the age of 22, dying on a ship voyage back to Virginia.
And though she is remembered for her bravery as ascribed to her by John Smith in the tellings of his times in Jamestown, there is no living proof that the event ever actually occurred. It is even suspected that Smith might have written the story just to improve on Pocahontas' image, though this theory has been contested as well.
Yet beyond any reasonable doubt, one blaring admission can be made and that is that Pocahontas was certainly not the feminist icon Disney made her out to be.
A Tall Tale
As with most Disney films, storytelling trumps historical accuracy. Though we may watch this film thinking we are gaining historical consciousness and believing we can spout off facts about early American settlers simply because we trust the Disney franchise, we are sorely mistaken.
Disney does not aim to give us reality wrapped up in a nice clean package. Instead, the clean package alters the reality to conform to a Disney model. And really that is one of its assets.
If Walt Disney Animation had created a Pocahontas who saved a random guy who had no romantic significance to her life later on, we might not respect Pocahontas. And if she had lost her sense of environmental tranquility and become a denizen of high society, we probably would not have liked her, the film or the story as much.
Disney teaches us that historical consciousness is good, but not necessarily driven by fictional interpretation. The reason we even have the motivation to learn about Pocahontas is because she is a likeable and fascinating character. If she was not portrayed that way in the film, it is doubtful we would care half as much to study her.
While it is worthwhile to refer back to historical texts giving context to some of our favorite films, perhaps Disney is the exception. Because no matter how hard we look through our history textbooks for intrigue and interest and connection to the past, nothing will ever quite compare to the glorified interpretation. It's Disney history.