Indian summer


With wounds still raw from its battle with historians last year, Walt Disney Co. must have a healthy appetite for political controversy, judging from its choice of Indian princess Pocahontas as the star of its latest animated movie.

You haven't heard? Lest you plan to spend the next year on some South Sea archipelago, you will. The ever-resourceful marketeers at Disney have taken their product launch to new heights. Nearly half a year before "Pocahontas" premieres on movie screens, an exhibit to whet public interest begins a nationwide tour of shopping centers this weekend, including The Mall in Columbia. The show includes animation kiosks and a huge replica of the ship of Capt. John Smith, whose life Pocahontas saved (although that is a matter of historical dispute). The movie will be unveiled in June before 100,000 people on the Great Lawn of New York's Central Park in what Disney is touting as a "family Woodstock."

It's hard to imagine that Disney would need to spend a nickel for promotion. Last summer's "The Lion King" devoured a record $306 million at the box office, copped a Grammy and sold $1 billion in merchandise -- not counting this month's stampede to buy the video release. Underestimate this kiddie tsunami and you'll make the mistake of one U.S. appliance chain that says it lost more than $100,000 because it advertised 2,100 copies of "The Lion King" tape dirt cheap and drew 13,000 customers the first day.

Yet the marketing marvel that powers this machine of make-believe has at times gotten derailed by cultural controversies. You can bet that Disney ran any chronicle of life about Native Americans and New World settlers through the political correctness rinse. After all, Arab-American groups were offended by lyrics in "Aladdin" and homosexuals charged that the effeminately voiced villain in "The Lion King" imparted homophobic thoughts to kids.

"Pocahontas" was in the works well before another, more recent, scalping set in Virginia -- the Disney's America theme park debacle. So it's not as if Michael Eisner & Co. are thumbing their noses at critics who claimed they're ill-equipped to retell American history.

Nevertheless, anyone who doubts that a simple cartoon about a squaw princess has the potential to spur deep and divergent emotions hasn't been paying attention to modern history, at least as it regards Walt Disney.

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