As Disney never tires of pointing out, Pocahontas is the studio’s first historically-based animated feature. What they don’t point out, understandably, is that — with the exception of two or three characters — this is essentially a live-action movie that a lot of people spent four years drawing. Has there ever been a cartoon less animated in spirit than Pocahontas? Disney’s well-meaning solemnity seeps over the characters like spilled ink. There’s a built-in problem with animated films featuring mostly people: Unable to project our emotions onto the otherness of cartoon animals, we observe the imitation humans, scrutinizing their every movement for accuracy. You look at someone turning his head and notice how his nose seems to shrink or expand from frame to frame. Even when a human gesture rings true, you can’t help considering how much work went into animating that gesture.
Pocahontas goes by fast, and some of it is reasonably entertaining. By now, Disney has this stuff down cold: the pastoral images segueing into show tunes (“Colors of the Wind” will likely continue Disney’s monopoly of the Best Original Song Oscar); the largely opaque heroes/heroines; the buffoonish villains who exist to be deflated; the earnest preaching, which here shifts from the usual “Be yourself” to “Accept others who are different.” And Disney has always excelled at low-comedy supporting players; there are really only two here — Meeko the raccoon and Flit the hummingbird — but the movie would feel completely stiff without them. (They don’t talk, which is an almost radical step for Disney.)
Despite Disney’s pride in delivering a history lesson, the advance word has advised us to approach Pocahontas not as armchair historians but as people who want to be entertained. (Okay, here we are, now entertain us.) In other words, Disney is saying: Get off our backs, we’re doing a good deed here. And I guess in some respects they are. Pocahontas is a decent film for girls, who generally don’t find many role models at the movies, and it’s a long-overdue big fantasy for Native American children. Yet Disney’s fiddling with history has produced a bloodless romance. Pocahontas, a proud young woman who resists marrying her boring intended, meets John Smith, a blandly cute Disney hunk who lands on this strange new territory along with a crew of English settlers searching for gold. Pocahontas and John fall in love because … because there would be no movie if they didn’t. Neither one is a person; they’re both too busy representing something or other. Call me a grinch, but I’m not particularly moved by two abstract concepts falling in love.
Disney already handled the “We’re all the same underneath” theme in Beauty and the Beast, where it resonated more deeply. Belle, a studious girl, learned to love the Beast even though he looked like an upright ox and sounded like Robby Benson talking through a shoe. Pocahontas takes a much more PC approach, never more explicitly than in the number “Savages,” in which the Native Americans and English settlers prepare for battle and denounce their foes as savages (“They’re barely even human”). But is it so unreasonable for the Native Americans to characterize the settlers that way? The romance between Pocahontas and John Smith is meant to be a bridge between cultures, a salve on ancient wounds, but we know that English culture won out and the wounds were mainly Native American. That Disney has received support from Native American groups is irrelevant — how can the studio whitewash this story as a Romeo and Juliet conflict? (Actually, it’s closer to West Side Story, but never mind.) And the movie’s pleas for tolerance are hypocritical in light of the effete villains, who even have a spoiled, plump dog named Percy. With its decadent plummy-accented queers pitted against virile heteros (Mel Gibson provides the speaking voice of John Smith), the movie is flat-out homophobic, a kiddie-musical version of Rob Roy.
Despite that, Pocahontas is a guilty-white-liberal movie. It sees Native Americans through Caucasian lenses: See, underneath that scary warpaint and red skin they’re really just like us. And if they were unlike whites in every possible way, would that justify wiping them almost completely off the face of their own earth? After a while, the movie turns schizo: No, they’re like us except that they respect nature and they don’t believe in guns. (Which made them easy targets until they were forced to start believing in guns.) What lesson will Native American children draw from Pocahontas? “Love thy white neighbor even though he took your country away”? How warmly would the black community receive a cartoon in which a slave woman and a plantation owner fell in love? Would they, too, suck up to Disney for finally putting their people on the screen?
On almost every level, Pocahontas is a mistake, though I did enjoy the clowning of Meeko and Flit. They’re basically leftovers from The Lion King, and I’m aware that Disney threw them in so as to have characters they could convert into stuffed toys, but they give the film what life it has. The anti-gun message is a nice touch, I suppose — two Native Americans are fatally shot, and cannons tear trees apart — but no English settlers get hit by arrows, which makes the Native Americans look fairly ineffectual. And then there’s Pocahontas herself. Lacking a mother (just like every other Disney heroine), she instead has a grandmother-tree, whom she asks for advice about her destiny. But does her destiny have to include romance? Especially with a white guy? (As Pinocchio demonstrated, Disney can actually make a superb fantasy without a whiff of hearts and flowers.) Checking out the hunky John Smith, the grandmother-tree gives the couple her seal of approval. She must not have noticed what his fellow soldiers were doing to her fellow trees.