What ‘Pocahontas’ Reveals About Disney, Both Positively and Negatively

In an animated image, a woman in a strapless gown paddles a canoe with a raccoon in front.

The animated film, “Pocahontas,” exists as both a contentious and Academy Award-winning blockbuster. It stands out as one of the few films from that era that Disney is hesitant to remake. While Disney often celebrates its animated classics, some films in its canon receive less attention due to factors like box office disappointments or perpetuating racial stereotypes.

Released in 1995 during Disney Animation Studios’ creative renaissance, “Pocahontas” draws loosely from the historical account of the Native American girl who, in 1607, purportedly saved an English settler, John Smith. The film, acclaimed for its vibrant colors and magical realism, received two Oscars but is not without significant flaws. Notably, Disney took liberties with the story, portraying Pocahontas as a voluptuous young woman, deviating from historical accuracy.

The movie faced criticism for its invented romance between Pocahontas and John Smith, a decision made under pressure to emulate the success of “Beauty and the Beast.” The film was accused of whitewashing history and perpetuating the Good Indian stereotype. Psychologists raised concerns about the unrealistic body standards set by Disney’s depiction of the heroine.

An animated close-up shows a woman with long flowing hair and green necklace.

Despite its controversies, “Pocahontas” remains part of Disney’s legacy. It was the first animated Disney film centered on a woman of color and the first (and only) time Disney ventured into an animated movie about a real person. While criticized for its historical inaccuracies and romanticized portrayal, “Pocahontas” tackled significant issues such as environmentalism and the consequences of cultural clashes.

In the current context of Disney’s evolving narrative, with recent films like “Strange World” featuring a gay teenage protagonist, “Pocahontas” remains a subject of discussion. The film prompted a shift in Disney’s content strategy, influencing the company to return to lighter material after facing criticism for delving into politically charged themes.

A woman in a short, strapless dress kneels facing a kneeling man in purple. They are looking into each other’s eyes as a raccoon, a dog and a tree look on.

Despite its contentious nature, “Pocahontas” has its supporters who appreciate its visualized songs and see it as a well-intentioned entry in the Disney canon. However, the film’s complex reception highlights the challenges of balancing entertainment with addressing significant social and cultural issues.

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