As history, "Pocahontas" is bunk. As a dramatic animated feature, however, it's undeniably absorbing and engrossing.
I leave the complete exegesis of its crimes against truth to the experts, real and phony. What matters for most of us is that the film is simply beautiful: moving, complex, brilliantly animated. As much as any Disney product of late, it seems to aim to go deeper than mere cartooning.
It deals with such issues as colonialism, environmentalism, racism, despoliation, war and betrayal. That's the upside. The downside: If it were any more politically correct, it would have to have been written by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gloria Steinem, high on nail polish vapors during a slumber party at Renaissance Weekend. But at the same time, it blessedly lacks the strudel-like heaviness, the weight of sheer sanctimony, that turns so many politically correct projects into lengthy purgatories in un-air-conditioned Sunday schools.
I suppose it's wonderful that the Indian activist and sometime actor ("The Last of the Mohicans") Russell Means reads the words of the chief Powhatan and that Pocahontas herself is read by Irene Bedard, a Cree-Inuit. It's really great that Shirley "Little Dove" Custalow McGowan, an actual descendant of Pocahontas, is titled "Native American Consultant" in the credits and that several Native Americans are also listed in the musical credits. But really, pedigree only counts with dogs. The question is, Does it work? And the answer is: Yes it does.
The movie wears its biases on its shoulder like sergeant's stripes. When white men come to America, that's bad -- as if, had they realized it, they would have turned back. They're not only genocidal murderers fueled by utter greed, but also despoilers of the land, who waste no time in digging up the landscape for gold. (But, excuse me, Mr. Eisner, sir, these vagrant thoughts keep occurring: When the steam shovels dug up Anaheim, Calif., in 1955, and Orlando, Fla., in 1968, to make way for Disneyland and Disney World . . . weren't they digging for gold?)
The Indians, on the other hand, are comely, noble, honorable and have much better bodies. Natural goodness rests with them, although their distressing tendency to execute prisoners is somewhat overlooked.
The story -- familiar from legend and folklore to every American -- isn't much. Plot: Girl meets boy. Girl saves boy from Excedrin Headache No. 345, the one you get when they pound your skull into jellied eel. Girl gets boy. Girl loses boy. War almost breaks out. Lots of the usual Indian hokum, and maybe they live happily ever after and maybe they don't. That's it. That's the movie.
Except that's not the movie. The movie isn't in the story, thank heavens, it's in the fluidity and expressiveness of the animation, values that the stills we reproduce here really don't capture. The real breakthrough, artistically, appears to be in capturing the nuances of facial expression, quite rare in animation, and even rare in the sophisticated Disney canon, where until just recently the faces have been largely immobile, idealized masks.
Somehow Pocahontas' team of animators (the credits list 16!) has managed to give her a face of sparkling vitality, eyes that dance and shift like the sun on the water and a sleekness and believability of movement that's quite astonishing. Her face is certainly stylized (and it's certainly beautiful), but in a rare way, she really comes alive.
Smith is a less convincing creature. Forget that the original was a swarthy, bearded mercenary who'd fought in a dozen forgotten European wars; this clean-limbed blond boy looks as if he's a chrome hood ornament on the 1938 Nazi Aryanmobile. His face just isn't very interesting; it doesn't even match up with Mel Gibson's salty, seasoned voice, which belongs behind skin that's wrinkled, weather-beaten and the texture of beef jerky.
Other bits of Disney business are up to usual professional standards: the de rigueur troupe of animal comedians designed to enchant younger audience members and translate into a line of plush toys are threaded through the action -- a hummingbird and a raccoon, as I recall. There's the inevitable out-of-scale villain (David Ogden Stiers reads the part of evil, rapacious Governor Ratcliffe, but he's drawn to look like Jon Lovitz on steroids), not quite up to the level of Cruella De Vil, but amusingly dynamic nevertheless. Two or three dramatic scenes have true power, as the tragic fight between Smith and Pocahontas' Indian suitor, Kocoum. And, of course, backgrounds that shimmer with color even as they convince with style.
Alan Menken writes the music, though not with Howard Ashman; the new guy is Stephen Schwartz, of "Godspell" fame. "Colors of the Wind" has the high-tech sound of a break-out soft rock hit, as propelled forward by Vanessa Williams. More impressive in my opinion is the mordantly sardonic "Savages," as tribes of red and white men psyche up for war, each by demonizing the other.
But the strangest stroke of all is how short the piece is. It has been streamlined into but 73 minutes. It feels a little like a trailer for the real movie "Pocahontas" or the first act of a three-act masterpiece. It feels over before it starts, and a good many of the dramatic issues aren't truly resolved. You leave thinking: "Is that all? There isn't more?"
Hear the composer
To hear "Pocahontas" composer Alan Menken talk about his work on the latest animated film from Disney, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6130 after you hear the greeting.
Animated feature, with the voices of Mel Gibson and Irene Bedard
Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg
Released by Walt Disney