Uncharted waters

The flawed but fascinating Pocahontas is a big step forward for animated features

I'm worried about the fate of Pocahontas, Disney's 33rd animated feature. Of all the big-budget, feature-length cartoons released by Disney in the past six years, this one--about a romance between a Native American woman and a white man who arrived in the New World seeking to conquer the land and its people--is the most original, daring, and flawed.

Pocahontas is a fascinating departure from the studio's formula--a delicate work of art that casts a very fragile spell. Its emotions are subdued, at least in comparison to the apocalyptic tragedy of The Lion King and the swoony romance of Beauty and the Beast. So is the film's style, which refuses to take full advantage of animation's limitless creative potential. Pocahontas doesn't soar into Fantasia-style psychedelia or indulge in extravagant visual puns like Aladdin. With few exceptions, it doesn't even exaggerate the human form for dramatic or comic effect; most of its bipedal inhabitants are rendered with such cautiously realistic detail that they sometimes seem rotoscoped, like the characters in Ralph Bakshi's American Pop and Lord of the Rings.

Most moviegoers will dislike it, even though it's an interesting and honorable motion picture, because Disney has conditioned them to expect a certain kind of product that varies only slightly each time. And when the movie fails to generate a $500 million worldwide box office take and another billion in merchandising, as Aladdin and The Lion King did, the Walt Disney corporation is likely to respond by considering the film a flop. They might even try unfairly to scapegoat certain aspects of the movie, like its cultural sensitivity, its elusive and generally inaccessible songs, or its introverted female protagonist.

Which would be a shame. In its own expensive, showy, megacorporate way, the film expands the emotional and narrative vocabulary of animation. It demonstrates that cartoons can do everything live action can, and more. Although it boasts fabulous imagery, tuneful songs, and a few cute critters, ultimately Pocahontas is less an animated musical fantasy than an adult historical drama that just happens to be told in the form of a cartoon--and a politically correct cartoon at that.

The picture's opening, which takes place on board the Susan Constant, a ship owned by the England-based Virginia Company, should tip viewers to what's coming. The firm's governor, John Ratcliffe; a handsome soldier named John Smith, who looks like Julian Sands and talks like Mel Gibson (who provides the character's voice); and a motley crew of adventurers are discussing their destination, the New World.

The governor expects to find gold there, and declares that if "savages" try to prevent them from claiming it in England's name, they will be hastily exterminated. John Smith, a strapping blond warrior in the Hawkeye mode, seems to agree with him. You don't often hear discussions of colonialism and the profit motive in a cartoon; you don't hear them very often in live action movies, either.

Cut to a Native American village somewhere inland. A band of braves has just returned from routing a rival tribe. The chief, Powhatan, congratulates the bravest of the bunch, a strong, silent hunk named Kocoum. There is excited discussion among the villagers about impending marriage between Kocoum and the chief's oldest daughter, a tall, high-cheekboned, strong-willed loner named Pocahontas.

But the object of their gossip is nowhere to be found. Pocahontas (speaking voice by Irene Bedard, singing voice by Broadway star Judy Kuhn) is out communing with nature, wandering the woods--chatting with her pals, a raccoon and a feisty hummingbird. And pondering her future with the help of Grandmother Willow, a 400-year-old tree whose face is visible only to those who believe in her.

Grandmother Willow tells Pocahontas it's OK if the notion of an arranged marriage scares her. It's also OK for her to reject her father's advice and choose her own destiny and her own mate. (Considering the movie is set in 1602, it was smart of the filmmakers to let Grandmother Willow deliver this sop to Disney-style feminism. If it didn't emanate from a supernatural tree, it wouldn't ring true for a second.)

Then comes a prophecy: while traveling a river, the old tree explains, Pocahontas will be confronted with two obvious branches, one safe and the other dangerous. Pocahontas' dilemma is illustrated in a song, "Just Around the Riverbend," that takes its cue from the Robert Frost poem "The Road Not Taken." And in an exquisitely edited action sequence, our heroine, bristling with confidence, forsakes a smooth stretch of river and hurtles down the rapids and over a waterfall.

Meanwhile, John Smith has come ashore on a reconnaissance mission. While the governor and his men are back at the shoreline, clear-cutting trees to make a fort and blasting open the earth in search of gold, he's supposed to look for native enemies and then report back. As he travels through the pristine forests, his demeanor softens slightly. He's enraptured by this strange new world.

Appropriately, it's at the falls that Pocahontas encounters the man who will fulfill Grandmother Willow's prophecy. The future lovers sneak uneasily around each other. First Pocahontas hides from Smith, then vice versa. When they finally see each other for the first time, the moment illustrates the difference between Pocahontas and most of its animated predecessors.

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