(Mike Gabriel & Eric Goldberg, USA, 1995)


Film reviewers tend to turn off their brains when confronted with a Disney animated feature for kids. Isn't it just enchanting, innocent, colourful, well-meaning entertainment?

Being too critical, or simply analytical, of such a divertissement risks charges of inappropriate, killjoy, over-intellectual behaviour.

So sue me. Personally, I have always been perplexed at the market pitch of Disney product. I grew up on Warner cartoons, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. So I perfectly understand the appeal of animated violence, surrealism, bad taste and low jokes.

But for which imaginable child is Pocahontas made, with its saccharine sentimentality, its dull aesthetic sense, its bland, middlebrow show-tunes, and its unctuous, liberal message?

Pocahontas is already well known as the supremely politically correct Disney animation. In so far as it treats the real-life relationship between Pocahontas and British sea captain John Smith, it is Dances with Wolves (1990) minus the scatology. Native American culture is presented as wise, rich, artistic, at one with nature – while the invading white tribe (or at least the Bad Apple in its midst) is avaricious, disrespectful and murderous.

Actually, I have no problem with a little politically-correct proselytising in favour of Native Americans in the context of a Disney epic. In fact, I applaud the gesture. But Pocahontas is not particularly courageous in this regard.

Intimations of racial conflict and genocidal oppression are quickly removed from the story. Both natives and settlers are presented as equally bigoted in a mild way, until all happily see the error of their ways. How reassuring. And although the film tries to pay its respects to the Native American tongue, it clumsily and offensively slips into showing both Natives and settlers speaking the Queen's English, with no room for any inter-cultural misunderstanding.

But is it entertaining? The key to the success of Disney's best animation has long been clear. The famous Disney magic happens whenever the natural world is imbued with an energetic life, and animals are cleverly endowed with a range of human attributes. This is certainly true of Pocahontas. Its most successful moments conjure either great, lyrical symphonies of leaves in the wind, or frenetic bursts of comic play between a dog, a bird and a raccoon.

It is the actual human characters who present the biggest problem. Despite the laborious effort of a vast animation team to copy human movements, gestures and facial expressions, this aspect of the film never ceases to look extremely strange and stilted. The characters come across as neither life-like nor conventionally caricatural.

And those songs! A wise, old, female spirit in a tree sings a supposedly native chant that sounds as musically authentic as "I'm an Indian Too" from Annie Get Your Gun (1950). Pocahontas' big number about the joys of nature begins with: "I may be an ignorant savage, but ...".

And it's all downhill from there: manly choruses, treacly love duets, cute tunes for the animals. Do kids really like this stuff, or is it all just a monstrous figment of the corporate imagination of Walt Disney Pictures?

© Adrian Martin August 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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