In anticipation of Walt Disney's "Pocahontas," my wife checked out a few books on the Indian princess to read to our children.
"That consummate traitor of the Indian world, Pocahontas . . ." began one of the stories, a winner of several children's-book awards. Hmmm, not exactly the heroine role we're expecting in the movie. Nevertheless, we went on to read that and other books about Pocahontas to our kids with the knowledge that the actual recounting of that episode nearly 400 years ago is itself a matter of great debate, much less Disney's cartoon version.
Some critics have skewered Disney for tailoring its tale for marketing purposes, for turning Pocahontas into a Barbie doll and Capt. John Smith into a Fabio of the Virginia Company in order to sell more toys. Weeks before the movie premiered, stores were already stocked with movie tie-in merchandise: clothes, games, candy, soundtracks, even adhesive tape.
It was a surgical blitz more reminiscent of the landing at Normandy than the landing at Jamestown. It's natural to cluck a bit when Pocahontas' character in the movie exhorts John Smith, in song, to savor the fruits of earth "and not wonder what they're worth," while Disney's animation lab is such a money mill.
But the anticipation and hype over Pocahontas also give a glimpse of the enormous educational potential that Disney's history theme park had. Its proposed location, on the edge of Civil War battlefields and Virginia horse country, was rife with problems, which led to the plan being shelved last fall.
The movie bears out Disney Chairman Michael Eisner's premise for the park: Disney can take children to places of the mind they otherwise might not be apt to go. Maybe we could have attempted a discussion of the colonization of the New World with our elementary school-aged children a while back, or about the loss of a culture, or about getting along with people of different beliefs, but I suspect we wouldn't have gotten as far. Perhaps a future trip to Jamestown, Virginia, the setting for the Pocahontas story, won't be met by a reflexive "borr-ing."
Those who complain that Disney has not been true to the story miss the point. The movie doesn't have to be the final word; it's a starting point. It's a parent's job, not Disney's, to educate children. Disney simply provides the entree to engage children to possibly want to learn more about that time and those events. To quote a Disney flick of older vintage, it's the sugar to help the medicine go down.
Several historians of note charged during the heated Disney's America debate that the entertainment giant would tell history wrong. But as the controversy over the Smithsonian exhibit about the atomic-bombing of Japan illustrated, interpreting history for a broader age group isn't cut and dried either. Disney's role is not to spoon-feed lessons to children, any more than the schools are responsible for giving children all they need to know. Education might not have to begin in the home, but it better have a regular place-setting there.
(If you want to get a head start on the Disney animated feature slated for next summer, check out Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The movie will be an adaptation of the 1831 novel. And in summer '97, the inspiration will come from Greek mythology, "Hercules.")
So if you join the millions who will see "Pocahontas" this summer, don't stop there. Read a book about the subject with your children. Talk about it. The dog-eared story of the Mayflower, which too was destined for Virginia but wound up in New England, may even find renewed appeal come autumn. "Pocahontas" doesn't just carry a history lesson, but a physics one: You can harness Disney's energy or let it fizzle away.
Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.