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We Call it Corn

Disney gambles with a
kinder, gentler Pocahontas.

by Coury Turczyn

 

In a thousand half-empty movie theaters across the land, a gentle breeze can be felt as a million adolescent brows furrow in consternation:

"Where’s the cute talking fuzzy animals?!"

But alas, there are no cute talking fuzzy animals this weekend, the weekend in which only a single, solitary film was released. No, despite the promises of Burger King Fun Meals, Nestlé candy bars, Mattel action figures and every sort of product tie-in imaginable by human enterprise, the cute fuzzy animals do not talk. And it could mean the downfall of the massive marketing machine known as Pocahontas.

On one hand, you can’t help but respect Walt Disney Pictures for trying to do something a little different. In the past decade they have refined their movie making formula into an infallible mine of mega-dollars–so why not expand it a bit with more sophisticated material and maybe capture an even bigger audience? Not a bad idea, but they chose the wrong story to do it with–by cramming a sensitive story like Pocahontas into the square hole that is Disney, they’ve come up with a movie that will entertain only Disney diehards.

Through the ’90s–in such hits as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King–the modern Disney formula was forged after years of dismal failure. First, there’s the return to quality animation, pretty if sterile. Second, an injection of weird romance (not too much to bore the kiddies, but enough to be an excuse for rule three). Third, stock the soundtrack with syrupy love ballads sure to be pop hits. Fourth, and most importantly, jam in as many cute talking fuzzy animals as the script can bear. With these elements, no matter how watered-down and benign the storyline you’ve got a can’t-miss hit.

With Pocahontas, Disney has tried to apply a real-life piece of folklore into their traditional fantasy formula with hit-and-miss results.

Although this is Disney’s 33rd full-length animated feature, it’s the first to be inspired by a real figure from history. Simply told, Pocahontas is the story of a Native American girl in 1607 who falls in love with the English sea captain John Smith, saving him from execution. And that’s about it. Disney has added a despicable villain, Governor Ratcliffe, who only wants to pillage the new world of its gold. Then there’s a 400-year-old mystical spirit, Grandmother Willow, who consults Pocahontas. Finally, of course, Pocahontas has cute animal friends who aid her–though, as noted before, they don’t talk, thus giving the movie whole new worlds of verisimilitude.

By trying to adapt the tale of Pocahontas for modern audiences, Disney took on quite a complex burden. Previously burned for its portrayal of Arabs in Aladdin, Disney had to make absolutely sure it wouldn’t offend Native Americans with its touchy tale of English conquest of Indian land. Thus running throughout the film are rather heavy-handed lessons about the effects of greed, prejudice, violence, misunderstanding and abuse of the environment. Although these are very important lessons–ones not being taught enough in these anti-politically-correct days–they make for a damn unwieldy cartoon. Where it should fly away on light breezes of whimsy, Pocahontas gets bogged down in sticky human muck.

Compounding this heavy story is Disney’s decision to venture into yet more new territory–characters with actual sex appeal. Certainly, Disney characters have fallen in love before, their cartoon features twinkling with delightful innocence. In Pocahontas, dare I say, they look downright … um … "hot." John Smith, voiced by Mel Gibson, is a square-jawed Harlequin hunk with flowing blond hair. Pocahontas is a voluptuous, high-cheekboned, exotic supermodel. (Warning to parents: when the characters kiss, their lips actually touch!) I applaud Disney for daring to have fully functional adult characters, but I have to wonder: do kids really want to see this?

I doubt it. Thankfully, Disney manages to imbue the voiceless critters with more life than any of the human characters, and gives Pocahontas a modicum of entertainment value (besides, of course, all that great animation, music, blah, blah, blah). Meeko the ravenous raccoon does some wonderful silent bits of comedy, and his sidekick Flit the hummingbird adds much-needed laughs as well. Children will no doubt love them, just as calculated.

By no means a failure, Pocahontas is a mixed bag of highs and middle-lows. Some day it would be nice to see Disney really try a whole new formula for animated feature films, instead of simply twisting up the one they’ve got–it would probably result in a much more cohesive piece of entertainment.

 

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