‘Pocahontas’ Abandons the Parental Crowd
VARIOUS ARTISTS, “Pocahontas”; original soundtrack ( Walt Disney )**
Imagine that after Lorenz Hart died, Richard Rodgers had hooked up with Rod McKuen instead of Oscar Hammerstein II. Such is the comparative effect of the great musical revivalist Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) collaborating on his first full post-Howard Ashman song score with lyricist Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Pippin”). The music soars, but-- settlers beware-- there’s untold treacle in them thar woods.
Ashman’s gift on the Disney pictures was to write for adults, who might be considered the secondary audience, and assume the primary one, kids, would get it too. How disappointing, then, that under Schwartz’s lyrical hand “Pocahontas” sounds like a children’s musical through and through.
The three group bad-guy numbers caricature imperialism, racism and greed with none of the bitter wit usually afforded Disney villains. It’s a little harder to go wrong on the romantic ballads, but these too tend toward the preachy, all the sentimental animism conspiring to make the Native American heroine seem a seminal New Ager in puppy love.
Yet it’s not as if we won’t be leaving the theaters humming as intended. Most successfully, “Just Around the Riverbend” is a swell girl-facing-horizon anthem in the tradition stretching from “Over the Rainbow” to “Belle.”