Pocahontas (1995)

(On DVD, March 2018) Discussing Pocahontas is … complicated. There are different levels of racism, and not killing others is only the first step in a very long ladder. The recent resurgence of racism in popular (North-) American discourse is a discouraging reminder that a lot of people get stuck halfway in the ladder, pointing to unimaginable cruelty below them as proof of their enlightenment, but only so far as it doesn’t really change anything for them. (With my own white privilege, I’m stuck 2/3 of the way.) Where I’m going with this in discussing a Disney movie is that while Pocahontas is a visible attempt to ennoble and represent Native Americans in a kids-friendly format, it does carry along a number of vexing issues. Anyone who knows anything about the history of race relations from the moment Europeans set foot in North America may be put off by the rewriting of history, the inclusion of magical talking animals, the sexualization of Pocahontas as a tall thin supermodel, or the almost-mystical link between Native Americans and nature. Even on a surface level, the film is problematic: My own daughter was not amused by the film’s more sombre moments (“Savages” may have all sorts of lofty intentions, but its irony and dramatic counterpoint is completely lost on the pre-school set) and the film never became a household favourite like other Disney films. The portrayal of hate in the film, even from characters who are obviously wrong and evil, is troubling to an extent that more fantasy-based antagonists aren’t. Sure, the film is PG-rated and aimed at older audiences. But that’s part of the problem: Pocahontas is dragged in different directions by cute animals, soaring paean to nature, racist antagonists, impossibly virtuous leads, and the result feels scattered. This is even more frustrating given that everyone involved in the film’s conception must have had the best of intention in condemning hate. Still, it doesn’t work as well, and in a far more sensitive 2018 it’s easier to see why. Too bad, because from a technical level, the film is nothing short of terrific: 2D animation was seldom better, and Disney clearly brought in top talent in terms of musical numbers and voice acting. Alas, little of these matters when there is clearly something off with Pocahontas. I wonder how a more modern treatment would deal with these issues … and if it’s possible to tell anything close to this story without annoying someone somewhere.

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