The Problem with Pocahontas

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The premise of the Disney animated feature Pocahontas (1995) was a young, highly spiritual Native American woman named Pocahontas meets an English rogue named John Smith who is an adventurer at heart and they each get a greater understanding of the values of each other's cultures.

"In 1991, I pitched to Michael Eisner, Roy E. Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg the following story idea: 'Pocahontas: A beautiful Indian princess falls in love with a European settler and is torn between her father's wishes to destroy the settlers and her own wishes to help them.'

"It was a Romeo and Juliet story. I pitched it just like that and just that long and they loved it immediately and walking out of that meeting, they had already made the commitment to make the film," stated the film's co-director Mike Gabriel.

Gabriel used only one illustration in his pitch meeting, a picture of Tiger Lily from Peter Pan (1953) surrounded by cartoony forest animals.

The final Disney animated feature film version became a romanticized fantasy inspired by the folklore and legend of Pocahontas rather than actual history. Disney had to use some artistic license from the real story where Pocahontas was roughly eleven years old when she supposedly saved the twenty-seven year old John Smith's life.

The original pitch art for Pocahontas used by Mike Gabriel.

In addition, it could not be a story where the couple lived happily ever after together since Smith abandoned her in America and she later married British colonist John Rolfe.

So Disney created an awkward, illogical ending where Smith's wound is so severe that Pocahontas' tribe's proven effective natural holistic remedies have to be ignored so that he can spend many months at sea bleeding on a bacteria-ridden, rat-infested ship. In the film, Pocahontas gives the wounded Smith some willow bark to help ease the pain. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, the basis of aspirin.

It would have made more sense to stress that Smith had to return to England to testify, since his status and reputation would make him a credible witness, so that the crew wouldn't get hung for mutiny against Ratcliffe.

However, the real Pocahontas was indeed the daughter of Chief Powhatan who ruled an alliance of Algonquin Native America tribes in Virginia and she had been married to a warrior named Kocoum who was killed by the colonists.

By the way, the real Pocahontas was not a princess, because her tribe never had that designation like some of the Western Plains tribes. At best, her status might be comparable to being the daughter of the President of the United States, which wouldn't make her a princess but gave her special privileges.

However, she was often treated as a princess. Cleric and travel writer Samuel Purchas recalled meeting Pocahontas in London, noting that she impressed those whom she met because she "carried her selfe as the daughter of a king". When he met her again in London, Smith referred to her deferentially as a "King's daughter".

Shirley "Little Dove" Custalow McGowan is a descendant of Virginia's Powhattan Indians. James Pentacost, the producer of Disney's Pocahontas (1995), first saw her in June 1992 while visiting the Native American Festival at Jamestown with a couple of Disney writers.

McGowan worked occasionally at the Jamestown Festival Park and traveled all over Virginia and along the East Coast, presenting programs on the history and culture of her Algonquin ancestors who included Pocahontas.

"We didn't meet her then," stated Pentacost to the Daily Press in 1993. "But when we came back in October I brought a larger group – about eight or nine artists and writers. We met her then and talked. Glen Keane photographed and videotaped her."

McGowan consulted with the Disney Studios three times about the film, but eventually felt that the production was not adhering strictly enough to historical accuracy and disavowed any further participation. She asked for her name to be removed from the film but it was not.

Originally, Pocahontas' animal friend was to have been a comedic talking turkey named Redfeather, who thought he was quite a ladies' man, and who would be voiced by comedian John Candy. With Candy's death in 1994, and further development on the script, it was determined that no animals should talk.

Storyman Joe Grant said, "I always saw Pocahontas a child of nature. Pocahontas is one with nature as are the animals, streams, trees, leaves. It was impossible for me not to think of her as part of that world. Her relationship with the animals is also part of a Disney tradition to deriving humor and comedic support from animals."

Early Pocahontas concept artwork by Glen Keane.

Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg told Pocahontas' supervising animator Glen Keane to make Pocahontas "the most idealized and finest woman ever made".

Keane remembered, "Anytime you're developing a character, you try to go someplace to find inspiration. For Pocahontas, we went to Virginia. As I was walking through the woods I was imagining that this is where John Smith and Pocahontas would meet, maybe over there on that little hill. Maybe they saw the very same river that I'm looking at right now.

"As I was thinking of all this, I heard a voice calling: '"Scuse me, 'scuse me, are you Glen Keane?' Then this Indian girl comes running up and says, 'you're the animator who's doing Pocahontas, aren't you? My name is Shirley Littledove.'

"There was another girl next to her, and Shirley said, 'This is my sister, Debbie Whitedove. We are descendants of Pocahontas. Our father is the chief of the Powhatan tribe of Indians.'

"The way Shirley stood there, all I can say is there was a spiritual presence with her. There was a dignity about her. She spoke very calmly with long, pregnant pauses between everything she said, and she just looked through me. I started stumbling on my words. I didn't know how to refer to Native Americans. Then I felt, maybe this was how John Smith felt when he met Pocahontas!

"And as they stood there, I mean … I took a picture of both of them, and between their faces was Pocahontas' face in my mind – I could see her. They were both beautiful; they had a nobility in the way they stood. All the way through the film, I had that photo on my desk there as a reminder of that."

Other visual inspirations for the character were Natalie Belcon, Naomi Campbell, Jamie Pillow, Kate Moss, Charmaine Craig, Christy Turlington, Dyna Taylor and voice actress Irene Bedard.

For almost three years, Taylor who was a 21 year old senior at California Institute of the Arts and of Filipino heritage sat for four three-hour modeling sessions and was paid a total of $200 in which she was videotaped so the animators could draw poses of her from different angles.

Glen Keane apparently gave her a signed picture of Pocahontas that says, "To Dyna, with gratitude for the inspiration you gave us."

Keane also looked to a 1620 depiction of Pocahontas from a history book. In an attempt to make the character look distinct, some vaguely Asian elements were incorporated into her face, especially in the shape of the eyes.

Pocahontas concept artwork by Glen Keane.

The clean up artist on the character Renee Holt-Bird stated, "Pocahontas' hair free-flowing, random, streamlined aspect struck me as very reminiscent of Art Deco architecture. It is a character in itself. It's really an expression of her freedom, her soulful quality. It was wonderful to work with and it reminded me of how mesmerized I was as a child by the elegant, sensuous flicking tail of the goldfish in Pinocchio."

"We're doing a mature love story here, and we've got to draw her as such. She has to be sexy," said Keane, who likened Pocahontas to a tribal Eve. "This is a Disney version. This is not a documentary."

Early in the film, a curious Pocahontas spies on the bold Smith as he climbs up the side of a cliff to scout the terrain. Peering shyly through the lush foliage, she sees his kindness in offering the effusive raccoon, Meeko, some hardtack biscuits to eat.

Co-director Eric Goldberg said, "When Meeko goes out to meet John Smith, it is clear that Pocahontas is spying on him. She likes what she sees. She is interested in him."

It is not until later in the film when the adventurous Smith is exploring a cascading waterfall spilling into a river that the two strangers officially meet. Smith quickly ascertains that he is being watched by some possible enemy and tricks the person into following his path on the river rocks.

Leaping from a hidden outcropping with his musket lit and ready to fire, Smith confronts the lovely Pocahontas and slowly lowers his gun.

Producer Pentecost recalled, "This is one of the most beautiful scenes in animation…a scene that has no dialog and is completely carried by the facial expressions of the characters which is extremely difficult to do in animation. It is the Romeo and Juliet moment of our film when they first see each other. For Pocahontas, she is seeing John Smith but it is the first time John Smith has seen a Native American woman and he likes her."

Co-director Gabriel remembered: "Beautiful scoring by Alan Menken to reflect their feelings. It's just such a great moment, aiming the gun and then slowly lowering it. We were on a press junket with director John Lasseter who was promoting Toy Story (1995) and he saw this clip and said it was a wonderful 'cinema moment' which was a great compliment."

The scene was storyboarded by animator Glen Keane who stated, "I thought this is what this moment [where Pocahontas and John Smith meet] has to be. It has to be something bigger than life, beyond just these two people standing there. The place where they met was very important. To have it in front of this waterfall, with just the roar of the waterfall behind them, the mist slowly revealing Pocahontas, kind of like clouds swirling around, made it very ethereal."

This scene transitions into the pivotal moment where Smith's thinking is transformed during the song, Colors of the Wind. The magic of the swirling colored leaves as well as the faint recalling of the Listen To Your Heart song on the gentle wind allows the audience to understand how these two characters who spoke different languages can communicate with each other because of the deep emotional connection between the two of them.

Pentecost emphasized, "John Smith feels he is opening up to Pocahontas all the great things the British are going to bring her tribe. Pocahontas is confused because she thinks things are fine just as they are. Just as they start to know each other, it all goes sour. Eventually, Pocahontas does show him the way she feels in the song Colors of the Wind.

"It was the first song written for the movie. The characters end up in a different place at the end of the song than where they were at the beginning of the song. It really is a journey the characters have made together. She has changed John Smith's thinking. In the final scene, his gun is left to the side of the frame, leaning by a tree."

However, just as in Shakespeare's classic play Romeo and Juliet, the course of true love does not run smooth nor end happily. At one point, the brave Smith is to be killed in retaliation for the death of the warrior Kocoum and Pocahontas visits him to say their final goodbye.

As co-director Gabriel said, "It is an emotional moment saying to each other that they love each other before they say goodbye. It strengthens their love. It's an adult emotion that is being expressed and it is very powerful. The story of Romeo and Juliet is universal and this is another retelling."

Producer Pentecost echoed, "It was the first Disney animated film that did not have a happily ever after ending. Smith returns to England because of his wound and Pocahontas remains because of her obligation to her people." The two characters have learned from their relationship that their personal responsibilities exceed their feelings for each other.

The meeting of Pocahontas and John Smith, according to Native American actress Irene Bedard who was the speaking voice of Pocahontas, "is the heart of the film. If you try to see things from another person's point of view, you will gain a great wisdom and a deep understanding of others."

Glen Keane sketches of Pocahontas.

Irene Bedard is an Anchorage-born Native and the daughter of an Inupiat Eskimo and a French Canadian/Cree. Judy Kuhn, who was a Broadway performer, was originally cast as both the speaking and singing voice of Pocahontas but it was later decided to cast a Native American actress as the speaking voice.

Bedard stated, "Respect for the elders, respect for the earth and respect for the animals. Those all were represented in Pocahontas. And out of all the Disney Princesses up until then, she was looking to find her own strength. She doesn't wait for the prince to come and save her — she saves the prince.

"She is independent and strong-willed. She has a sense of self, but still takes advice from her elders on what she should do. I think my favorite part is when she is told to listen with her heart and not to follow only her head. Growing up, I had an idea of who Pocahontas was and when I took the role, I learned more.

"While we were recording, the animators filmed me to use as a reference for expression and body movement. They also captured certain facial expressions and the way my hands moved. Judy Kuhn and I were never in the studio together and I never saw any other the other actors during recordings.

"During some of the recording sessions they would film me. … I was new to the process and found out that the animators look at that film frame by frame and use it to capture expressions. One of my habits is pushing my hair behind my ear and I noticed that Pocahontas has the same habit."

If I Never Knew You is the love theme from the popular film written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. While the song itself was removed from the film, it provided a major musical theme throughout the film representing the deep love between Pocahontas and John Smith.

In 2005, Disney released the tenth anniversary edition of Pocahontas, which had the song fully animated, colored and integrated back into the film. It was performed by Mel Gibson and Judy Kuhn who had done the recording in 1995 when they did the original voices for the two characters.

"In the original release, the scene started with Pocahontas talking to John Smith and then her friend Nokoma interrupting them. It was wonderful to include the song in a new edition," co-director Gabriel remembered. "It was just heartbreaking to have to cut the song because John Pomeroy and Glen Keane had put so much emotion into their animation of the two characters. It was already substantially animated, well over 90 percent, so it was big deal because a lot of money and time had been spent on it."

During test screenings, Roy E. Disney recalled that when the song came on "there was degree of restlessness, especially with the children in the audience, and the teen audience was giddy. However, adult focus groups rated the song as their favorite in the film. It was just such an adult emotion being expressed that the attention of younger people began to wander from the story we wanted to tell."

Composer Alan Menken later claimed that he was the one who suggested cutting the song because it slowed the pacing of the film.

Gabriel said, "The song belonged in the movie and contributed to the story, especially the end where Pocahontas looks into the reflection in the river and rejects Kocoum and accepts John Smith and they finish the duet in reflection form. It is the song where they, for the first time, audibly acknowledge the depth of their love for each other."

Pocahontas debuted to the public with the "Premiere in the Park" on June 10th, 1995, at which the Disney Studio screened the film on the Great Lawn of New York City's Central Park, to a tremendous crowd of fans and families.

Tickets to the event were provided by lottery, a live stage show with celebrity talent was included and after the film there were, of course, fireworks. Roughly 70,000 to 100,000 people attended the event.

Pocahontas premiered on a giant screen in New York's Central Park

Besides the usual merchandising, the film was promoted in the Disney theme parks by a live walk-around character not always portrayed by a Native American performer.

The Spirit of Pocahontas was a shortened version of the film, with special effects and, of course, the music. With a runtime of roughly a half-hour, versions could be seen at Disneyland's Fantasyland Theater (1995-1997) and at the Backlot Theater at Disney's Hollywood Studios (1995-1996).

The show creatively retells the story from the perspective of the storyteller Werowance and the Powhatan tribe who take on all the roles except for Pocahontas and John Smith. Meeko and Flit were not in the show but a puppet tree of Grandma Willow was.

At Disneyland Paris in 1996 a special mini-parade celebrating the film took place. The Chaparral Theater was showing Pocahontas le Spectacle, a popular live stage show where guests could become part of the film themselves featuring some exciting water and fire effects.

Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends was a twelve minute show that opened at Disney's Animal Kingdom April 22, 1998 and closed September 27, 2008. It was performed in the three hundred and fifty seat Grandma Willow's Grove theater in the Camp Minnie-Mickey area of Disney's Animal Kingdom that is now home to Pandora – The World of Avatar.

The genesis of the show came from the animal education cast at Disney's Animal Kingdom. It was meant to be similar to the animal meet-and-greet shows at zoos and other animal parks, where a trainer or two brings out one animal at a time and talks about the animal's characteristics to the audience.

The show was written to utilize the natural behaviors of the animals. The animals sometimes decided they didn't want to appear which is why so many different types of animals rotated throughout the years in the show.

A live character performer portrayed Pocahontas, and there were two puppeteers who were underneath the stage to operate Sprig and Grandmother Willow. Grandma Willow came from the Disneyland Spirit of Pocahontas show that closed in September 1997.

Pocahontas is worried that the forest is being cut down indiscriminately and runs to Grandma Willow for advice. She reminds Pocahontas of a prophecy that one creature has a special gift to protect the forest but that Pocahontas herself must discover the identity of that creature.

One at a time, several different animals wander onto the stage including at different shows a raccoon, a snake, rabbits, opossums, a skunk, a porcupine, rats and a turkey. Pocahontas talks about what people can learn from each creature. "Every animal has knowledge to share with those who are willing to learn."

Finally, Pocahontas realizes that the creature of the prophecy must be human beings. "Humans can destroy the forest, but we can also save it. The Earth is our home too. If we take care of it, it will take care of us!"

Since the show was designed for young children, with special seating for them in the first four rows of the theater, the message had to be simple and clear. The show proved so popular that eventually DAK occasionally offered Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends Animal Training Show where the animal handlers demonstrated how they trained the animals for the show.

Disney television animation producer Tad Stones had pitched a Pocahontas television series that would have been a prequel to the feature film and that "Glen Keane has come up with some marvelous designs for that" but was never developed.

Pocahontas is one of the few Disney animated feature films never considered to be adapted as a Broadway musical or a live action remake because of its problematic nature.

The problem is that Pocahontas is an odd hybrid. It is not an accurate portrayal of a real person nor is it fully an original Disney fantasy but a mixture of both and even when it was released it raised concerns that it was in some way disrespectful to Native Americans. Still, Pocahontas, in the service of diversity, was incorporated into the Disney Princess Franchise while a real Indian princess like Tiger Lily was denied membership.