The first Disney animation to be based on real-life figure, the Powhatan princess who saved the life of English adventurer John Smith in 1607, Pocahontas portrays an attractive group of native Americans living in harmony with the unspoiled Virginia wilderness. Even so, the Powhatans are not perfectly correct, politically speaking: as the story begins, the men are re-
turning from battle, and later they show themselves just as prone as the English to a fear and loathing of strangers. Nor are the English entirely demonized. They are merely greedy and stupid strip miners, except for their leader, Gov. Ratcliffe, who is a greedy, stupid, evil strip miner, and Smith, who is seeking a home, not plunder.
But Pocahontas herself is a full-bodied (to put it mildly) saint of the wild, who moves sinuously about the woods with her tame raccoon and hummingbird (who together with Ratcliffe’s pampered pet dog provide the film’s humor), and converses with Grandmother Willow, an ancient spirit incarnate in a tree.
And, by “listening to her heart,” she is able to speak English within minutes of meeting Smith.
Such leaps of unreality are standard in Disney animations, where candlesticks dance and lions discourse on theology. But simply by appearing in a story loosely based on real people, they are jarring in Pocahontas. Even though the studio’s traditional strengths are evident, particularly the animation—Eden, let alone Virginia, could not have looked more lovely— the story is ultimately unsatisfying, perhaps because even its target audience knows the peace forged by Pocahontas didn’t last happily ever after. Still, as the huge crowds for Casper are already proving, a children’s movie does not have to be a hit with adult reviewers to be a big success at the box office.
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