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THANKSGIVING: POCAHONTAS

From the June 27, 1995, Deseret News

With "Pocahontas," the artists at Disney once again prove that when it comes to animation, no can hold a candle to them.

Storywise, however, the formula may be wearing a bit thin. And as well intentioned, gorgeous and heartwarming as "Pocahontas" is, it doesn't seem terribly sure about its audience.

Pocahontas is Ariel, Belle and Jasmine combined, a buffed-up babe squeezed into skintight buckskin. And the film contains less comic relief — and quite a bit less-inspired humor — than "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" or "The Lion King."

In fact, "Pocahontas" seems to be made for an older adolescent-and-up audience with its romanticized view of history and its powder-puff love story.

But do teenagers go to animated features? And if they do, will they return a second or third time? To make the kind of impact achieved by Disney's other recent animated feature efforts, "Pocahontas" needs that repeat audience. And if young children aren't particularly taken with it, who will be?

And yet, as a cartoon feature in its own right, it outshines everything that has come to theaters since "The Lion King" and firmly establishes once more that Disney is king of the animation hill.

A lush, romantic yarn that tries to correct previously misguided portrayals of American Indians in movies (and perhaps goes a bit far in the other direction), the film gives equal time to the viewpoints of Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard and sung by Judy Kuhn), along with the Powhatan tribe settled in Virginia, and John Smith (Mel Gibson — who gets to sing) and crew, English plunderers who arrive in 1607 on a ship directed by pompous Gov. Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers).

Ratcliffe immediately has his crew ravage the land in search of gold, while Smith goes out in search of "savages."

Meanwhile, Pocahontas observes them from afar until she and Smith meet and begin a tentative relationship — which starts with an ecological debate. That relationship will ultimately be interrupted by violence, death and the threat of war, and in the film's big climax — the moment we've all been looking toward — Pocahontas pleads for Smith's life.

The film's comic characters are primarily Ratcliffe's equally pompous bulldog, his sycophantic aide and a pair of animals that follow Pocahontas around, a hummingbird named Flit and Meeko the raccoon.

With a sweeping grandeur that is beautifully drawn and occasionally breathtaking, "Pocahontas" tries to make the landscape — the environment, if you will — as important a character as any of the humans. And occasionally it does come alive — literally, in the case of a wise, old talking willow.

Even more than being ecologically correct, however, is the film's effort to say something about racial tolerance, a message that comes across very well in the song "Savages."

It's true that the plotting and characters are simplistic, the animal gags are silly and the sensibility is very New Age — hey, this is a cartoon. You were expecting Chekhov?

And as a cartoon, a piece of family entertainment from the best in the business, "Pocahontas" is more than satisfying. If it doesn't quite soar as the complete artistic triumph that was "Beauty and the Beast," if it doesn't quite take off at the box office a la "The Lion King," it's still a most enjoyable cinematic treat.

Movies like this are easy to pick apart, of course, especially in terms of history being distorted. In truth, Pocahontas was around 12 years old when she met John Smith, who had no romantic interest in her. And later she married a different English explorer and moved to London, where she died at 21.

Which begs the question — why not just do this story as a fictional tale with other names? After all, if she's not really Pocahontas, why confuse the juvenile audience by calling her Pocahontas?

Despite the G rating, by the way, there is a fair amount of violence, including one killing.