Film Reviews

Uncharted waters

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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?"

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Matt Zoller Seitz