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Uncharted Waters

I'm worried about the fate of Pocahontas. Of all the big-budget, feature-length cartoons released by Disney in the past six years, this one -- about a romance between a Native American woman and a white man who arrived in the New World seeking to conquer the land and its people -- is the most original, daring and flawed.

Pocahontas is a fascinating departure from the studio's formula. Its emotions are subdued, at least in comparison to the apocalyptic tragedy of The Lion King and the swoony romance of Beauty and the Beast. The film's style, which refuses to take full advantage of animation's limitless creative potential, is similarly subdued. Pocahontas doesn't soar into Fantasia-style psychedelia or indulge in extravagant visual puns like Aladdin. With few exceptions, it doesn't even exaggerate the human form for dramatic or comic effect; most of its bipedal inhabitants are rendered with such cautiously realistic detail that they sometimes seem rotoscoped, like the characters in Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings.

Most moviegoers will probably dislike it, even though it's an interesting and honorable motion picture, because Disney has conditioned them to expect another kind of product. That would be a shame. In its own expensive, showy, megacorporate way, the film expands the emotional and narrative vocabulary of animation. It demonstrates that cartoons can do everything live action can, and more. Although it boasts fabulous imagery, tuneful songs and a few cute critters, Pocahontas is ultimately less an animated musical fantasy than an adult historical drama that just happens to be told in the form of a cartoon -- and a politically correct cartoon at that.

The picture's opening, which takes place on board a ship owned by the England-based Virginia Company, should tip viewers to what's coming. The firm's governor, John Ratcliffe; a handsome soldier named John Smith, who looks like Julian Sands and talks like Mel Gibson (who provides the character's voice); and a motley crew of adventurers are discussing their destination, the New World.

The governor expects to find gold there, and declares that if "savages" try to prevent them from claiming it in England's name, they will be hastily exterminated. John Smith seems to agree with him. You don't often hear discussions of colonialism and the profit motive in a cartoon; you don't hear them very often in live action movies, either.

Cut to a Native American village. A band of braves has just returned from routing a rival tribe. The chief, Powhatan, congratulates the bravest of the bunch, a strong, silent hunk named Kocoum. There's excited discussion among the villagers about the impending marriage between Kocoum and the chief's oldest daughter, a tall, high-cheekboned, strong-willed loner named Pocahontas.

But the object of their gossip is nowhere to be found. Pocahontas is out communing with nature -- chatting with her pals, a raccoon and a feisty hummingbird. And pondering her future with the help of Grandmother Willow, a 400-year-old tree whose face is visible only to those who believe in her.

Grandmother Willow tells Pocahontas it's okay if the notion of an arranged marriage scares her. It's also okay for her to choose her own destiny and her own mate. (Considering the movie is set in 1607, it was smart of the filmmakers to let Grandmother Willow deliver this sop to Disney-style feminism. If it didn't emanate from a supernatural tree, it wouldn't ring true for a second.)

Then comes a prophecy: while traveling a river, the old tree says, Pocahontas will be confronted with two obvious branches, one safe and the other dangerous. Pocahontas' dilemma is illustrated in a song, "Just Around the Riverbend," that takes its cue from the Robert Frost poem "The Road Not Taken." And in an exquisitely edited action sequence, our heroine, bristling with confidence, forsakes a smooth stretch of river to hurtle down the rapids and over a waterfall.

Meanwhile, John Smith has come ashore. Appropriately, it's at the falls that Pocahontas encounters the man who will fulfill Grandmother Willow's prophecy. The future lovers sneak uneasily around each other. When they finally see each other, the moment illustrates the difference between Pocahontas and most of its animated predecessors.

Because the base of the waterfall is shrouded in mist, Smith, who's aiming his rifle at a kneeling shape he presumes to be the enemy, doesn't realize at first that he's about to shoot a beautiful young woman. Then comes a lovely series of interwoven shots: she stands up and slowly turns around, and as she turns, the haze lifts and their eyes lock. Smith lowers his rifle. Then we jump back to a medium long shot, in profile, of John Smith and Pocahontas staring at each other. It feels less like a moment from a Disney movie than a missing scene from Michael Mann's brooding The Last of the Mohicans.

In almost any other Disney film, this moment would have been handled very differently. There would have been music that went from playful to mysterious to excited, and then, when the lovers gazed into each other's eyes in quivering close-up, the score would have surged to giddy heights. There might even have been birds whirling around, streaming bits of colorful crepe paper.

But the directors of Pocahontas eschew the obvious. There's no music in the scene -- just the hissing rush of water and the faint chirp of birds. And rather than filling the screen with giant close-ups of moony faces, the filmmakers hang back, showing us the lovers in full frame. As they hesitate, so does the film.

The moment is lovely, and it's just one example of how the film breaks with Disney tradition. It's the first studio-financed cartoon inspired by a real life figure. It's the first to enlist the aid of bona fide political figures (such as American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, who served as advisor on the script and provided the voice of Chief Powhatan) to provide historical and cultural input. And it's the least kid-friendly Disney movie in years, both in terms of its story, which concentrates exclusively on adults with adult emotions, and its merchandising potential. (What kid wants to snuggle up next to craggy old Chief Powhatan at night?)

Most intriguingly of all, the film has an unhappy ending. Perhaps it's more accurate to say it's unhappy by the standards of recent Disney; with the exception of The Lion King, which unflinchingly examined the trauma of losing a parent, most of the studio's recent cartoon product has taken viewers to the edge of true sadness or terror, then pulled back at the last possible second. Pocahontas and John Smith find true love, but they don't get to hold onto it. Like the lovers in another romantic summer weepie, The Bridges of Madison County, the intensity of their affection is compounded by the knowledge that they can't possibly stay together.

Like Romeo and Juliet, they're doomed by bloodlines; the film enlarges this conceit so that it encompasses culture and nationality as well. Although the script bends over backward to suggest that peace between Native Americans and colonists could have been a possibility if each side had embraced understanding over suspicion and ignorance, our knowledge of what really happened darkens the hopeful mood.

The lovers' separation, coupled with our realization that the arrival of the white man signals the beginning of the end for the red man, suffuses the finale of Pocahontas with a mood of melancholy regret. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, of course -- except that it's likely to leave folks who think animation is only suited to the presentation of dancing teacups rather baffled.

Although I've said many positive things about Pocahontas, I wouldn't want viewers to expect a movie that works on every conceivable level. The picture has problems. One is that the traditional Disney elements often feel shoehorned into the narrative. Perhaps because the filmmakers were interested in exploring more adult terrain, they treat some of the songs in a clunky fashion, and although the requisite anthropomorphized animals are endearing, they never seem integral to the plot. And although Disney's animation team has grown increasingly sophisticated in the past decade, they're not particularly confident in portraying realistic, adult characters. In old Disney cartoons, the least-interestingly designed characters were always the ingenue humans. They often came off as slightly blank and stiff, like ambulatory mannequins.

Over the last few years, Disney has performed an almost inexplicable balancing act, creating family fare within a rigid formula that also, somehow, is conducive to the creation of genuine works of populist art. But Pocahontas doesn't maintain that balance, and may ultimately be viewed as a failure.

Pocahontas paddles through uncharted waters, occasionally banging the banks, even threatening to sink. But I always applauded its courage. In the future, I'd rather see another Pocahontas from Disney than another Aladdin, even though Aladdin is a more entertaining and confident work of art. It's only through movies like Pocahontas that an art form long viewed as a pacifier for wide-eyed children, both young and old, can finally grow up. -- Matt Zoller Seitz

Pocahontas. Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. Voices by Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson, Russell Means and David Ogden Stiers. Rated G. 81 minutes.


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