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.