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Uncharted waters

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.

Because the base of the waterfall is shrouded in mist, Smith, who is aiming his rifle at a kneeling shape he presumes to be the enemy, doesn't realize at first that he's about to shoot a beautiful young woman. Then comes a lovely series of interwoven shots: she stands up and slowly turns around, and as she turns, the haze lifts and their eyes lock. Smith lowers his rifle. Then we jump back to a medium long shot, in profile, of John Smith and Pocahontas staring at each other, simultaneously enraptured and unnerved. It feels less like a moment from a Disney movie than a missing scene from Michael Mann's brooding romantic melodrama The Last of the Mohicans.

In almost any other Disney film, this moment would have been handled very differently. There would have been music that went from playful to mysterious to excited, and then, when the lovers gazed into each other's eyes in quivering closeup, the score would have surged to giddy heights of melodrama. There might even have been birds whirling around, streaming bits of colorful crepe paper behind them.

But the directors of Pocahontas, Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, eschew the obvious. There is no music in the scene--just the hissing rush of water and the faint chirp of birds. And rather than filling the screen with giant closeups of awestruck, moony faces, the filmmakers hang back, showing us the lovers in full frame. As they hesitate, so does the film.

The moment is lovely and subdued, and it's just one example of how the film breaks with Disney tradition. It's the first studio-financed cartoon inspired by a real-life figure. It's the first to enlist the aid of bona fide political figures (like American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, who served as both advisor on the script and provided the voice of Chief Powhatan) to provide historical and cultural input at every stage of production. And it's the least kid-friendly Disney movie in years, both in terms of its story, which concentrates exclusively on adults with adult emotions, and its merchandising potential (what kid wants to snuggle up next to craggy old Chief Powhatan at night?).

Most intriguingly of all, the film has an unhappy ending. Perhaps it's more accurate to say it's unhappy by the standards of recent Disney; with the exception of The Lion King, which unflinchingly examined the trauma of losing a parent, most of the studio's recent cartoon product has taken viewers to the edge of true sadness or terror, then pulled back at the last possible second. Pocahontas and John Smith find true love, but they don't get to hold onto it. Like the lovers in another romantic summer weepie, The Bridges of Madison County, the intensity of their affection is compounded by the knowledge that they can't possibly stay together.

Like Romeo and Juliet, they're doomed by bloodlines; the film enlarges this conceit so that it encompasses culture and nationality as well. Although the script bends over backward to suggest that peace between Native Americans and colonists could have been a possibility if each side had embraced understanding over suspicion and ignorance, our knowledge of what really happened darkens the hopeful mood.

The lovers' separation, coupled with our realization that the arrival of the white man signals the beginning of the end for the red man, suffuses the finale of Pocahontas with a mood of melancholy regret. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, of course--except that it's likely to leave folks who think animation is only suited to the presentation of dancing teacups and singing fish rather baffled.

Although I've said many positive things about Pocahontas, I wouldn't want viewers to expect a movie that works on every conceivable level. The picture certainly has problems.

One is that the traditional Disney elements often feel shoehorned into the narrative. Perhaps because the filmmakers were interested in exploring more adult terrain, they treat some of the songs in a clunky fashion, and although the requisite anthropomorphized animals are endearing, they never seem integral to the plot. (At the end, when Pocahontas' raccoon buddy and a spoiled English bulldog owned by governor John Ratcliffe--who have spent most of the movie teasing each other--show up wearing the garb of each other's cultures, the moment feels like something the producers of "Sesame Street" would have rejected as too PC. They might as well be carrying placards that read, "Can't we all just get along?"  

And although Disney's animation team has grown increasingly sophisticated in the past decade, producing movies that are composed and edited with the offhand elegance of the best live action features, they're not as confident in portraying realistic, adult characters. In old Disney cartoons, the least-interestingly designed characters were always the ingenue humans--like Cinderella, Snow White, or Prince Charming. They often came off as slightly blank and stiff, like ambulatory mannequins.

The company's artists have grown bolder and wittier recently, incorporating sly tics of body language and facial expression so that even potentially dullsville characters like Aladdin are fun to watch. But the more somber ambitions of Pocahontas require a more subtle kind of visual expressiveness. Sometimes the animators, led by veteran Glen Keane, succeed brilliantly--particularly during sequences of threatened or actual violence, when the film cuts between bloodthirsty opponents with such precision that time seems to expand, letting you admire the arc of a falling body or the blur of a rifle being raised.

But sometimes, during softer scenes, when we're supposed to stare into the faces of quiet people and figure out what they're feeling, the results are vague and unfocused. Although the more comic characters in Pocahontas are vivid (especially governor John Ratcliffe, voiced by Disney veteran David Ogden Stiers), the more serious-minded ones often come across as attractive blanks. Pocahontas' Native American suitor, Kocoum, is a big, hunky zero, and Pocahontas' best gal pal, Nakoma, is equally uninteresting.

Perhaps the movie's determination to honor Native Americans while not offending whites made the animators overcautious--determined not to caricature anybody too broadly, even though animation naturally lends itself to caricature. Or more likely, Disney's pen platoon found itself following an unfamiliar branch of the creative river and quite understandably got lost. Nothing quite like Pocahontas has ever been attempted in America before--certainly not with the full faith and backing of the most financially successful family entertainment purveyor in history.

Scores of animators in Japan have turned adult cartoons into a lucrative sub-industry, creating a new art form, Anime, that isn't afraid to delve into violence, sex, and perversion. Of course, much of Anime leans on genre conventions like science fiction and horror and action-adventure that tend to undercut claims of artistic seriousness. But like Pocahontas herself, the makers of this newest Disney epic are exploring the unknown without a guide, a map, or even a compass. It's only natural that they'd get lost from time to time. And they have every right to expect a little patience and forgiveness from audiences.

Unfortunately, in fine-tuning its animation department into a fun factory that churns out one merchandising juggernaut after another, the company has made audience forgiveness impossible. Disney has performed an almost inexplicable balancing act over the past few years, creating family fare within a rigid formula that also, somehow, is conducive to the creation of genuine works of populist art. But Pocahontas doesn't maintain that balance, and may ultimately be viewed as a failure by Disney--even if it grosses $100 million domestically--because compared to The Lion King, anything is a failure. Young girls will probably adore the movie, but boys will likely be bored out of their skulls.

And so, for that matter, will adults. This isn't a reflection of the movie's creative failures, but the dishonesty of Disney's marketing department. They've primed the public to expect another heart-stirring, crowd-pleasing mega-event when the film is closer in tone to The Secret Garden, or maybe an unusually thoughtful TV miniseries. In tone, Pocahontas falls somewhere between a middlebrow historical romance produced by MGM in the '40s and an art house picture. It's not the kind of movie that sells toys.

Pocahontas paddles through uncharted waters, occasionally banging the banks, sliding over rocks, even threatening to sink. But I always applauded its courage. Animation has too much potential to be constrained by corporate formula. In the future, I'd rather see another Pocahontas from Disney than another Aladdin, even though Aladdin is a more entertaining and confident work of art. It's only through movies like Pocahontas that an art form long viewed as a pacifier for wide-eyed children, both young and old, can finally grow up.

Pocahontas. Walt Disney. Voices by Irene Bedard, Judy Kuhn, Mel Gibson, Russell Means, and David Ogden Stiers. Script by Carl Binder, Susannah Grant, and Philip Lanzebnik. Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. Opens June 23.


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