The animated story of a certain Native American princess first hit theaters 20 years ago this week
Credit: Buena Vista Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Whether you were one of the kids clamoring to see the next Disney animated epic or one of the adults chaperoning those kids to the theater, you may be surprised to know that Disney’s Pocahontas was released 20 years ago this week. Time really flies when you’re busy growing up and stuff.

The movie serves as an interesting chapter in the story of Disney’s animated films. It’s beautiful but controversial, and we’re taking June 23 – the film’s 20th anniversary – as an opportunity to point out why this film continues to stand out even today.

1. It’s the only one of Disney’s animated films to be based on figures from history.

It’s debated whether the story that inspired 1998’s Mulan was based on an actual person, but we know Pocahontas and John Smith were real people. As such, Pocahontas dispenses with certain tropes common in other animated features. For example, the title character’s animal buddies don’t talk.

2. But that didn’t prevent major objections about historical accuracy.

The Pocahontas creative team researched the Powhatan Indians who interacted with the first English immigrants. They also spoke with descendants of that tribe about the group’s culture and history. In the end, however, the movie received major criticisms about its liberal take on the actual events. Perhaps the greatest criticism came from Chief Roy Crazy Horse, whose official statement claims the Disney film “distorts history beyond recognition.”

3. Pocahontas and John Smith weren’t such a great age match, for example.

While John Smith was nearly 30 when he arrived in the New World, Pocahontas was probably only around 10. And if that fact makes you feel like the film’s love ballad, “If I Never Knew You,” is just a little icky, you’re not alone.

4. The success of Beauty and the Beast allegedly drove Disney to make Pocahontas and John Smith a couple.

When Beauty and the Beast scored a surprise Best Picture nomination in 1992, Disney set out to replicate that success with another animated romance. According to this behind-the-scenes history of Disney films, what could have been a friendship between younger versions of the characters turned into a full-fledged romance.

5. And Pocahontas became sexier.

Pocahontas had a more realistic body than previous Disney leading ladies – and an idealized one at that. According to a Dallas Morning News interview with Glen Keane, the film’s supervising animator, then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg requested Pocahontas be “the most idealized and finest woman ever made.”

6. Christy Turlington helped inspire the character’s look.

As a 1995 Entertainment Weekly article notes, “Searching magazines for inspiration, Keane realized most of his clippings were of the supermodel.” The article also notes that this was news to Turlington’s rep.

7. As did real-life descendants of the Powhatans.

When animators went to Virginia to research the real Pocahontas, they met two sisters, Shirley Little Dove Custalow-McGowan and Debbie White Dove. Keane said the women’s faces helped him envision Pocahontas. “I took a picture of both of them, and between their faces was Pocahontas’ face in my mind. I could see her,” he recalled in this interview. “They were both beautiful, they had a nobility in the way they stood.” Custalow-McGowan even served as a consultant on the film, but she was displeased with the final result, ultimately telling PEOPLE, “I wish they would take the name of Pocahontas off that movie.”

8. However, another woman claimed Pocahontas’ face was hers.

CalArts student Dyna Taylor was paid $200 to model for animators, but she later told The New York Times that she wished she’d received onscreen credit for inspiring the character.

9. The real Pocahontas wouldn’t have dressed like that, either.

That off-the-shoulder look that she sports? It’s not something the actual Pocahontas would have worn. In a 1995 article about the movie’s authenticity, Mark Custalow, a Mattiponi Indian, explained how Powhatan women would have dressed: “Let’s just say that tops weren’t a big fashion statement then.” The flowing “wind machine” hair isn’t accurate either, according to the article: She would have more likely had a shaved head with a single braid.

10. The film evolved out of a failed attempt to adapt Swan Lake.

Mike Gabriel, who directed The Rescuers Down Under, initially set out to make a Disney version of Swan Lake. Such a film was never made by Disney, but in 1994, New Line Cinemas released the very Disney-esque animated film The Swan Princess.

11. Tiger Lily from Peter Pan helped the movie get made.

The film was first pitched with a poster of that other Disney Native American maiden with the text “Walt Disney’s Pocahontas” written above it. As Gabriel recalled in a 2012 interview with Animation Magazine, he repurposed the image “because I don’t draw women very well.”

12. It had one of the largest premieres ever.

Before the film hit theaters, it premiered in Central Park. Four giant screens were erected, and it was the first ticketed event in the park’s history. It’s estimated that 100,000 people ended up attending.

13. It’s not the only Pocahontas movie in which Irene Bedard performed.

Bedard, an actress of Inupiat, Yupik, Inuit, Cree and Métis ancestry, supplied Pocahontas’ speaking voice in the film. In 2005, she appeared in the film The New World as Nonoma, the mother of Pocahontas, who in this version was played by Q’orianka Kilcher.

14. It’s not the only Pocahontas movie for Christian Bale, either.

In the Disney film, Bale plays Thomas, a supporting character and one of the younger English settlers. By 2005, Bale had become an established leading man, playing John Rolfe, the man who eventually marries Pocahontas, in The New World.

15. The soundtrack album hit No. 1.

On July 22, the album displaced Michael Jackson’s HIStory as the No. 1 album on the Billboard Top 200. And the single “Colors of the Wind,” which won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1996, peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

16. "Colors of the Wind" was inspired by Chief Seattle.

Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the lyrics to the film’s songs, said “Colors of the Wind” was inspired by the words of Chief Seattle about man’s relationship to the environment. In response to a fan inquiry, Schwartz explained, “In the song, I basically wanted Pocahontas to address the Eurocentrism of John Smith; so in essence, it’s a consciousness-raising song. I tried to use Native American locution and imagery, and thus the specific wording was somewhat influenced by some of the Native American poetry I had been reading as research.”

17. You’re not the only one who wondered what a blue corn moon was.

The lyrics to “Colors of the Wind” ask, “Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon? / Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned?” Judy Kuhn, who provided Pocahontas’ singing voice in the film, admitted in a recent interview that the past two decades hadn’t provided any insight as to what the phrase means. “Actually, I have no idea what a blue corn moon is. I have always hoped someone could explain it to me,” she said.

18. The marketing onslaught for the film was massive.

It was a Disney film, after all, and the associated merchandise included candy, a Native American-styled Barbie, Burger King kids’ meals and, according to this Entertainment Weekly article, moccasins sold at Payless ShoeSource.

19. Yes, there was a Pocahontas video game.

That’s probably not surprising, since most Disney efforts get video game spin-offs. However, very few female figures from American history have ever starred in their own video game. So even if it’s in a drastically Disney-fied form, Pocahontas has gotten something that Betsy Ross and Martha Washington haven’t – yet.

20. And yes, there was a sequel.

In 1998, Disney released the direct-to-video Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, which has her sailing to England and falling in love with John Rolfe (voiced by Billy Zane). The film ends just before she and Rolfe begin their voyage back to Virginia. In real life, Pocahontas died before the ship left English waters. Kind of a bummer, really.

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