Contradictory yet integral animated films; Disney and Globalization in Pocahontas


Tobacco growth in Jamestown, Virginia. 17th century.

Disney’s Pocahontas can be considered one of their most important animated films in that it is (loosely) based on a real historical figure. The story behind Pocahontas is the history about the first English colony in America, which was built on war between the English and Indians. Despite 1994’s The Lion King being more successful, most senior animators working for The Walt Disney Company chose to work on Pocahontas, as they figured it would be more of a success (Booker). Despite the hypocrisy in the themes explored in Pocahontas—the film is capable of bringing about a positive message to families. David Whitley, the author of The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation confirms that the imagery and plots Disney films demonstrate have helped inspire generations of environmentalists (Jorgensen). However, Disney should look at its own globalization tendencies before implementing contradictory pro-environment sub-text in films such as Pocahontas. Animation seems to be ideal in Disney’s marketing as children make for easy targets to brainwash because their understanding of logic and social outlooks are in progress (Jorgensen). Perhaps even the Clinton administration of the 1990’s might have influenced certain subtext in the film. In the 90s, Bill Clinton endorsed an anti-tobacco bill that would carve out tobacco marketing initiatives (Age). The pro-environment themes in Pocahontas don’t necessarily reflect the corporation’s true intentions, but rather served for marketing purposes—Disney is a money making machine.

The film producers for Pocahontas attempted to represent cultural diversity in a positive light and correct some of their past controversies with other Disney films such as 1992’s Aladdin and 1994’s The Lion King (Sterrilt 149). In those films, Disney had conveyed racist ideologies such as: stereotypical references indicating some of the negative qualities associated with Islam—that Arabs are violent and anti-immigrant allegory with black and Latino communities in The Lion King. For instance, the outside of The Lion Kingdom indicating a “ghetto” furthers a racist narrative. Also, associating Arabs with radical Islam is equivalent to correlating all western Caucasians with the Ku Klux Klan. Disney failed at capitalizing the change needed for Pocahontas and the typical Disney-esque racial bias remains. In typical Disney fashion, Pocahontas attempts to profile its narrative with optimistic multicultural themes, instead illuminating more tensions that was ought to be intended in the indulgences of race or differences in culture (Sterrilt 178).

There’s great possibility that Disney films such as Pocahontas struggle to integrate the characters of the civilized world with those of the natural world such as animals. For instance, some of the controversies that surround Disney films is that the natural world is often considered different, not necessarily intended in a negative manner, but can come across to some viewers as feeling forced (Jorgensen). Disney tries to positively impact the viewer with the depiction of different cultures such as the Powhatan Native American Indian tribe portrayed in Pocahontas. In a DVD Behind-the scenes (feature) of Russell Means, it’s learned that the voice actor for Chief Powhatan had served as a consultant to make sure there was accuracy in Disney’s portrayal of Native Americans in Pocahontas and the 1998 sequel, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World. In the feature, Means is interviewed and acknowledges his gratitude in that the film embarks the truth of Pocahontas and the Powhatan Native American Indian tribe (Gabriel and Goldberg). However, Powhatan tribal member Custalow Mcgowan disagreed. Mcgowan was hired as chief American Indian consultant and states that Disney’s false portrayal estranges from the real Pocahontas. He states, “…they said the film would be historically accurate. I soon found out that it wasn’t to be.” And wished his “…name wasn’t on it” (Edgerton and Jackson). The portrayal of “difference” is often deemed offensive to viewers— the skirmish between colonists and Indians suggests interference with bourgeoisie liberal views, which clashes with what one would consider to be political correct (Byrne, Eleanor and McQuillan 119). Thus, Pocahontas generates diversity where superficial differences in the civilized portrayal of characters is normalized through widespread western concepts such as conservative individualism and capitalism (Sterrilt 149).

Disney is driven to put out more animated films with animals for the sake of marketability and financial gain despite their false parallel between animalistic and human behavior (Jorgensen). However, distinguishing between characters of the civilized world and natural world is no easy task. Such as in the case with Pocahontas, how would an animal react without words? The supervisor animator for the character Meeko, Nik Ranieri—drew inspiration from himself by acting out the emotions with exaggerated facial expressions before implementing the movement on paper. In The Making of Pocahontas DVD feature he is quoted to as saying, “You have to become the character.” Also, the animators for Pocahontas typically looked to older Disney films and the film’s actors to draw inspiration for the movements (Gabriel and Goldberg). On the topic of depicting character inspiration—it’s quite ironic that the portrayal of Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas perfectly exemplifies the business prowess of the Disney empire. Both have characteristics of greed and perhaps equal interpretations of rootlessness—piles of gold for Ratcliffe as to marketing incentives for Disney. Also, it’s worth mentioning that supervising animator for Ratcliffe, Duncan Marjoribanks, used geometry to find character personality in Pocahontas. For example, Governor Ratcliffe originally was pear shaped, but as he became more villain esque—full of smugness and gluttony—more emphasis was brought to his chest instead of intertwining it with his waist via a pear-like shape (Gabriel and Goldberg). There is no indication that Disney executives of actual tangible civilized reality inherit the same characteristics of pears or protruding chests; though that could be an understatement.

Glen Keane, supervisor character animator for Walt Disney Animation Studios, plays an important role in Pocahontas and Disney films prior such as 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and 1992’s Aladdin (Gabriel and Goldberg). To get a feel for Jamestown, Virginia, Keane traveled there to implement the ambiance of its environment into Pocahontas (Gabriel and Goldberg). Keane got a modern interpretation of Jamestown given that the foundation now serves as heritage tourism sites. While it was possible to draw some inspiration from the environment it is nearly impossible to factor in the tobacco growth that helped save the struggling Jamestown settlement back in the seventeenth century. In Deconstructing Disney, Eleanor Byrne states, “For Disney, play is fundamental to the construction of childhood, but also to the construction of the consumer” (Byrne, Eleanor and McQuillan 127). Conversely, the Native Americans did oblige Disney to shield their long past of what is natural and accurate (Booker). This establishes and targets a gullible audience in which their understanding of that contrasts between nature and the civilized accuracy of the real world. In Pocahontas, John Smith’s and the voyager’s new awareness of the Virginia environment is overbearing—however because of the narrative, Smith’s view changes as he begins to put himself in the shoes of Pocahontas and see in her eyes the natural world (Jorgensen). In essence, this is how Disney wants its audience to view the film using Smith as a scapegoat to suck the viewers into the natural world as well.  Given that Pocahontas was aimed at children there is no overt depiction of tobacco growth in the film. Instead, shots of glowing fires and smoke replace tobaccos omission from the film (Byrne, Eleanor and McQuillan 123). It’s possible that Disney was trying to acknowledge the political movement of the 1990’s Clinton administration (Byrne, Eleanor and McQuillan 116). During the early 1990’s, Bill Clinton sought to support the anti-tobacco bill to change the way tobacco was distributed. In a 1997 Newsday interview, Clinton stated, “Do you want Tobacco grown by family farmers, or do you want it grown by big corporations, if it’s a self-financing program.” Despite Clinton’s hypocrisy, the government was spending $25 million subsidizing the growth of tobacco (4.3 302). Also, despite being a smoker like Bill (but cigarettes instead of cigars), President Barrack Obama has fought against tobacco in some ways as well like signing bills that would require tobacco companies to reduce levels of nicotine in cigarettes. However, Obama has also supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and has said it would “carve out” and put a halt to the Tobacco industry (Arendt). The major problem with this bill is that it will outsource American jobs including those in the Tobacco industry, but more importantly those in the field of animation. In the seventeenth-century, enactment of global free-trade agreements paved the way to open up even more markets for the tobacco companies (Byrne, Eleanor and McQuillan 117). The cultural differences provided the English wiggle room to justify their freedom of trade notwithstanding their lack of judgment. The hostility between the two caused the massacre of Jamestown, putting a red flag on the natives and giving the Jamestown colonial an excuse to mandate and secure free-trade by force (Byrne, Eleanor and McQuillan 122).

Pocahontas is linked to capitalistic ideals and interests, therefor Disney like many other corporations take admiration from England—thus keeping all things British—high culture and aristocratic civilization (Budd and Kirsch 153). For example, in the opening scene of Pocahontas, Jamestown is glorified with images of wealth and high-end civilization for the seventeenth-century era. In Deconstructing Disney, Byrne notes that tobacco is temporary pleasure existing only for limited consumption—therefor Pocahontas is counterfeit money (Byrne, Eleanor and McQuillan 118). In many ways, the Tobacco companies are no different to Disney films in how they distribute cigarettes—both offer temporary stimulation. Disney’s animated films typically tend to present a deliberate sense to their audiences. Mike Budd and Max H. Kirsch capitalize on this in Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions. Budd and Kirsch state that in Disney animated films, “…the individual elite quest for self-gratification, adventure, and acquisition is good and just” and perhaps the portrayal of Disney characters will free audiences “…from the throbbing anxiety of life,” all very similar to addictions such as smoking (Budd and Kirsch 93).   

Although Disney films can demonstrate a positive overall message and perhaps inspire a new generation of environmentalists—the themes in Pocahontas distract from Disney Corporation’s true purposes. Because of strategic marketing, Disney rigs their films such as Pocahontas with pro-environment subtexts despite their own inconsistencies over the years. In part to their globalist nature of manufacturing—Disney has established a reputation of being nothing more than a cash cow. In essence, it’s true that Pocahontas was initially supposed to be Disney’s most important film because it was their first historical piece. However, since it was loosely based on the real historical figure did Disney really accomplish this task or did they just use that as a cover up—or a gimmick? Sure the film delivers in the respect that it can positively impact families all over the world, but surely this is Disney’s ultimate goal and part of their marketing strategy as these families make for easy targets of exploitation. Even political agenda’s had effects on Disney’s films, which were implemented to provide an overall good subtext, but failed to provide the accuracy in the case of Pocahontas, but succeeded in their own expectations of delivering a product that in return would give them the royalties to prosper as a globalized corporation.


4.3, Tobacco Control. Statements by President Bill Clinton and the US Food and Drug Administration on Regulations to Restrict the Marketing, Sale, and Distribution of Tobacco to Children. Tobacco Control, 1995. Print.

Age, Advertising. Clinton supports anti-tobacco bill. 29 November 1993. Advertising Age. web. 05 03 2016.

Arendt, Megan. “Obama Can Help End Tobacco Epidemic, Says ASH.” ASH Action on Smoking Health (2015). web.

Booker, M.K. Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children’s Films. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2010. Internet Resource.

Budd, Mike and Max H. Kirsch. Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2005. print.

Byrne, Eleanor and Martin McQuillan. Deconstructing Disney. London: Pluto Press, 1999.

Edgerton, Gary and Kathy Jackson. “Redesigning Pocahontas.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 24.2 (1996). Web. 5 March 2016.

Jorgensen, K. Robinson and B. “From Blindness to sight environmental epistemology in the 1990s Disney films.” Professional Communication Conference (IPCC) . Vancouver, BC: IEEE International , 2013. 1-7.

Pocahontas. Dirs. Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. Walt Disney. Walt Disney Video , 2000. DVD.

Sterrilt, David. “Pocahontas doesn’t Stray far From Disney Game Plan.” The Christian Science Monitor (1995).












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