Cultural representation in mainstream media is an ongoing battle. In the current Hollywood climate, where accurate cultural depictions are unlikely, authentic and truthful portrayals are the goal. No film could ever truly reflect any group of people, but representation not appropriation is the key. Disney, unlike any other studio, is an easily identifiable brand with a coherent image that spans anything that they slap their name on, thus making it an easy target. Disney has always had "issues" depicting other cultures - most famously with 'The Song on the South', which since its release in 1946 has had no kind of home video release in the United States. In the animated world, Disney stayed away from non-white stories, and when films took place in other countries, the culture had extremely little impact on the story such as 'The Jungle Book' and 'Aladdin' - even 'The Lion King', while featuring African phrases, isn't viewed as an African story. 'Pocahontas' was truly the first animated film where the intent was to depict the Native American culture and the film was to be tied to that identity.
'Pocahontas' is not a train wreck. It's more a cinematic misstep, and as more and more time passes, we look less kindly on it. While the animation and songs are knockouts, everything else is... problematic. I don't care for historical accuracy in my Disney films - I don't need to see Belle fighting in the French revolution (or do I?) - but the chairman of Walt Disney Studios at the time, Jeffrey Katzenberg, wanted this to be the defining version of the 'Pocahontas' story - an epic, an animated 'Titanic', if you will. In 1991, 'Beauty and the Beast' became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture, and remains the only hand-drawn film to do so. Katzenberg was determined to go for gold - winning that Oscar was the only option, and it was all hands on deck, and animators left what the then was considered the less prestigious 'The Lion King', as 'Pocahontas' was the one that was considered to be the animated film to define the studio. With all this in mind, it's hard to not criticise the historical missteps the movie takes, most notably ageing up 'Pocahontas' and making her more sexually appealing in the same vein of 'Aladdin's' Jasmine for mass appeal (this is something animators actually have said about her). The movie also has the problematic approach of attempting to depict the British colonisers and Native Americans as similar "savages". We get the Native Americans singing lyrics like, "They're different from us, which means they can't be trusted,' which proves maybe how tone-deaf the studio was with Native American history. Also, humanising villains is all well and fine, but when it comes with dehumanising the oppressed, it becomes problematic.
Disney villains - especially in the 90s - were extremely campy: Jafar, Gaston and everyone's favourite gay uncle Scar. While all are threatening, that's met with high-level goofy or campy moments. In a wild move John Ratcliffe, a literal racist, is one of Disney's more campy villains, more akin to Ratigan when he should be more like Judge Frollo. His villain song 'Mine, Mine, Mine' talks about how he wants us to see how he'll glitter. His character is a good reference point for the tone issues in this movie; even in his two songs, he goes from talking about glitter and gold to saying, "They're savages! Savages! Barely even human!" He misses the mark, as does the rest of the movie. The film wanted to be 'Beauty and the Beast' and resonate with adult audiences, but the film has too many cute animal side scenes with Meeko, Flit and Percy, and just misses the mark for both kids and adults.
Musical god Alan Menken wrote the songs for 'Pocahontas' - his fourth animated Disney film - and teamed with Stephen Schwartz, the music is to die for. 'Colours of the Wind' is up there with 'Part of Your World', 'Belle' and 'A Whole New World' as a Disney Classic. Even 'Steady as the Beating Drum', 'Just Around the Riverbend' and the cut 'If I Never Knew You' are beautiful pieces and hold their own in the Disney library. Even the problematic 'Savages' has similar beats to 'Beauty and the Beast's' 'The Mob Song' and 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame's' 'Hellfire'. The music is what helps audiences be a little more forgiving to 'Pocahontas'.
One thing you may have noticed I haven't really touched on is 'Pocahontas' herself. As a character she is bland, and while Irene Bedard gives her a powerful voice along with Judy Kuhn's phenomenal singing, she is very forgettable. I like that Native American girls can look at her and see themselves in her; I just wish there was more to her.
The movie, in an effort to appeal to Western audiences, forgoes having the Native Americans speak in Powhatan. Instead, we get a scene of magic leaves that allows John Smith and Pocahontas to understand either other. This only makes the problem more clear; I don't watch 'Hercules' and wonder why no one is speaking Greek, as it's a Western film made for a Western audience. Having a language barrier between the two leads could have enhanced the romantic narrative, but instead uses another lazy workaround. On the note of John Smith we have two issues - one that he is voiced by Mel Gibson, and two that he is meant to be British but has such a thick American/Australian accent blend, another strange choice.
'Pocahontas' is not a train wreck. It's more a cinematic misstep, and as more and more time passes, we look less kindly on it.
Like most 90s Disney ventures, the 'Pocahontas' adventure continued in its direct-to-video sequel 'Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World', which isn't the worst in this line-up, but comes across as even blander than its predecessor. As a kid, I liked the old lady Mrs Jenkins, who would always put on tea, but that's as far as any nostalgia goes for this title.
The big question is: what did Disney learn from the failure of 'Pocahontas'? It wasn't to avoid making films about other cultures, but to do so with voices of that culture in the creative process. This has been a very slow process starting with 1998's 'Mulan'. The studio sought out an Asian voice cast, and although they weren't all Chinese it was a step forward and helped the movie to be more culturally accurate. 'Lilo & Stitch' touched on Hawaiian culture, but scenes directly dealing with racism were cut. 'Brother Bear' has more focus on Alaskan culture, even though in the music it was decided a Bulgarian Women's Choir singing Alaskan words made for a more "spiritual experience". We then got 'The Princess and the Frog' which marked the first-ever African-American Disney princess, where Disney began purposely bring on people from the culture to act as technical consultants to help with authenticity, and this seemed to have paid off with the film being praised for breaking the princess mould. Finally, in 2016 Disney remade 'Pocahontas', now titled 'Moana'. Disney spent a lot of time forming a Polynesian trust who worked on making sure the film was culturally accurate, but even still the film blended ideas from multiple Polynesian cultures and made its own hybrid. A year later, Pixar released 'Coco', which dives into Latino culture. Both films were met with critical acclaim for their depictions of their representative cultures. While Disney is working on its representation behind the scenes, both 'Coco' and 'Moana' were still directed by white men, so there is still a long road ahead for Disney.
I highly recommend checking out YouTuber Lindsay Ellis' video essay 'Pocahontas Was a Mistake, and Here's Why!' for a really great in-depth look at not only Disney and cultural appropriation, but what that actually means and how it isn't always a bad thing.