Disney animation is one of the wonders of the modern movie age. Whether it is the magic of making drawings move or the emotional link the films have to childhoods past, there is something perennially enchanting about the elaborate feature-length cartoons that come from the house that Walt built.
Yet even magic isn't forever and pixie dust doesn't perennially bubble out of the ground like water from a spring. And with "Pocahontas," Disney's 33rd animated feature and the latest in the increasingly popular modern series that has gone from "The Little Mermaid" to "The Lion King," the spell, though hardly broken, is showing increasing signs of wear.
Not that "Pocahontas" won't justifiably delight children or is lacking in its share of animation's good things. Among its strengths is a gorgeous look, replete with sweeping vistas and colorful panoramas, and a fearless, strong-minded and athletic heroine (albeit one whose form-fitting buckskins make her resemble a close personal friend of Fabio's).
But adult viewers, spoiled by what has come before, may feel that this film, which relates the legendary romance between a chief's daughter and English adventurer John Smith in the New World, is more by-the-numbers than inspired. Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, "Pocahontas" is on the formulaic side, a copy that duplicates what its predecessors have done, only a little less adroitly and with a little less style.
So if the previous films featured cute animal sidekicks for its heroes, Pocahontas hangs out with Meeko the raccoon and Flit the hummingbird, undeniably amusing but no match for the lusty companions of "The Lion King." And the film overall lacks the bursts of irresistible humor that have powered its predecessors.
This blandness is especially noticeable in "Pocahontas' " seven songs, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. They mean well (more about that later), but they lack the wit and zest that came naturally to Menken's earlier partner, Howard Ashman, whose loss to AIDS has left a gap that looms larger with each successive film.
Disney has tried to break new ground in one area, with uneven results. Criticized in the past, and with reason, for promulgating racist stereotypes, the studio has walked the extra mile, making Pocahontas' tribe as noble as the day is long, living in mellow harmony with nature until the dread "pale visitors" arrive. Though this scenario (written by Carl Binder, Susannah Grant and Philip LaZebnik) is preferable to the one that came before, it would be nice if the pendulum stopped in the middle sometime instead of swinging from one side to the other.
Titular leader of the British expedition that founds what is to become the Jamestown colony in Virginia in 1607 is the bloated and evil Governor Ratcliffe (voiced by David Ogden Stiers), who is accompanied by the officious valet Wiggins and an insect dog named Percy and who is continually searching for gold that isn't there. Having the British as villains, apparently, is still socially acceptable.
The man the new colonists respect, however, is John Smith (Mel Gibson), a hunky blond with the looks of a beach volleyball champion who somehow acquired a reputation as a Native American fighter despite never having encountered any until this trip.
On the Native American side of things, Powhatan (Russell Means) is having troubles of his own. His daughter Pocahontas (Irene Bedard, with singing by Judy Kuhn) is not exactly wild over his plan to marry her to a humorless warrior with the strength of 10, and good advice of the "even the wild mountain stream must someday join the great river" variety is not helping much.
For Pocahontas is wondering if life might have something more exciting in store for her. She's encouraged in this by Grandmother Willow (Linda Hunt), an anthropomorphized tree that looks like Robin Williams in bark drag and is the film's most amusing presence.
Naturally Smith and Pocahontas are fated to meet, but in addition to falling in love under a steamy waterfall, they engage in a political debate over ecology and correct land use that sounds like a contretemps on the "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour." But while these two are spooning (and singing the score's best song, "Colors of the Wind"), the opposing sides are preparing for war, and soon enough Pocahontas will dramatically plead for Smith's life in the situation that has linked their names for hundreds of years.
Much has been made of the fact that the real Pocahontas was probably 12 or 13 when she met Smith and unlikely to look as much like a "Dating Game" contestant as she does here, but that is beside the point. Anybody who goes to a film like this for a history lesson is at best misguided.
Among the things people do go for, however, is romance, which makes the film's half-hearted "we'll always have Paris" ending something of a misstep. It is closer to the historical truth, but then this film hasn't exactly been bitingly realistic in other respects. If you're going to make a pro-ecology, anti-colonialism animated feature, you might want to throw in a conventional happy ending to lighten things up. It couldn't hurt.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: some violence and the shooting death of one character.
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'Pocahontas' Irene Bedard, Judy Kuhn: Pocahontas Mel Gibson: John Smith Russell Means: Powhatan David Ogden Stiers: Governor Ratcliffe Linda Hunt: Grandmother Willow Christian Bale: Thomas
Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directors Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. Producer James Pentecost. Screenplay Carl Binder, Susannah Grant, Philip LaZebnik. Editor H. Lee Peterson. Music Alan Menken. Lyrics Stephen Schwartz. Art director Michael Giaimo. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes.
* Opens today exclusively at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood; in general release June 23.