What’s this? A Disney musical with the usual first-rate animation and hummable tunes but without the big laughs, the cute talking animals, the magic props and the happy ending. It’s practically un-American. Those features could be found in the most recent Disney smash quartet — The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Children and adults rose to the bait. But in Pocahontas, the 33rd animated film from the House That Walt Built, the matter at hand is somber history instead of the typical sweet fable.
It’s a bold move. There’s no telling what Dole will think of the usually “family friendly” Disney folks dishing out a racially charged love story between an American Indian girl and a British soldier, especially when the early settlers of the Virginia Co. are decried as greedy guts out to rape American Indian land for gold and glory.
Pocahontas (spoken by American Indian actress Irene Bedard and sung by Broadway’s Judy Kuhn) is the daughter of Chief Powhatan (spoken by activist Russell Means). Although betrothed to the warrior Kocoum, she falls for Capt. John Smith (spoken and — gulp! — sung by Mel Gibson in a gleeful croak), who sails from England to the New World in 1607.
Directors Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg get things off to a rousing start with Smith’s daring rescue of a boy at sea. And the first glimpse of the Americas is pure Disney magic as the animators conjure up an enchanted forest. Pocahontas sings of what lies “just beyond the river bend” — it’s John and a love between cultural adversaries that moves the film into the “stick with your own kind” territory of West Side Story.
The rap on Pocahontas is that it will spell Poca-bore-me for action-starved kids of all ages, especially restless boys who won’t sit still for a smoochy musical. Actually, it’s not the smoochiness that’s the problem — though our heroine’s outfits sometimes make her look like Poca-Barbie — it’s the preachiness. Four of the seven songs in the Broadway-flavored score, by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, condemn avarice or sermonize about ecology by using pedestrian conceits about the need to “paint with all the colors of the wind.”
Enough already. Pocahontas is so busy trying to teach John about protecting the spirit of the land, she hardly has time for romance. Their lilting love duet “If I Never Knew You” was cut from the film and is now heard only over the final credits, sung by Jon Secada and Shanice. You could also bemoan the lack of a wow set piece, such as the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King or the Genie transformations in Aladdin. There are no funny, fast-talking animals — Meeko the raccoon and Flit the hummingbird remain silent pals to Pocahontas and make you miss the verbal fun that Nathan Lane’s wisecracking meerkat brought to The Lion King.
Pocahontas has its own stately beauty and a pervading sadness that may be tough on kids who have to watch racial tension ending in murder, the wounding of John Smith, and poor Pocahontas, loveless as John returns home, left to hector again in PC song about “the colors of the wind.” Disney deserves praise for raising the ante on its ambitions in animation. Next time, though, a little less civics lesson and a little more heart.