Why is it that things that are good for kids — vegetables, medicine, movies with messages — are often so unappealing? Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale (Disney, PG), the story of the first Thanksgiving as told by the Native American who brokered the event, has valuable lessons to teach, but it’s so self-conscious (not to mention misguided in parts) that it will probably be out of the theaters long before Turkey Day.
Like many of its Disney live-action predecessors (most recently, Iron Will and White Fang), Squanto follows one young man — women don’t figure much in these movies — as he overcomes countless obstacles on his quest for something meaningful. In this case, Squanto (Adam Beach), a Patuxent brave, is captured by English traders who bundle him off to Europe. He manages to escape and return to the New World, only to find that his tribe has been wiped out. Motivated at least partly by a wish to aid in other Indians’ survival, he helps the new colonists harvest the land, and in 1621 they establish a peace treaty.
Although it’s heartwarming to watch the two groups sit down to feast together, it’s also anticlimactic. After an hour and a half of bloodshed and hatred, it would have been nice to see the scenes leading up to that moment — Pilgrims and Native Americans working together. Instead, the camera scans the diners as Squanto’s voice-over describes their cooperative efforts. Then, within minutes, an epilogue informs us that the treaty was short-lived.
For the most part, Squanto communicates that it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s important. This may be true, but Squanto’s journey seems to be more about survival than heroism. When he finally stands between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, and screams, ”Enough! Put down your weapons!” you get the feeling he’s just fed up. He tells them they should live together in peace because otherwise, ”you’ll kill us, we’ll kill you.” He’s a realist, not an idealist.
Surprisingly, Squanto perpetuates some of the stereotypes it’s trying to squash. The main character pacifies a wild bear by quietly singing to him, and jumps with his horses from the land onto a moving ship — hmm, must be that mystical Indian magic at work.
With all these heavy themes, the movie’s only light moments come when Squanto is taken in by an order of monks (including Mandy Patinkin), which he refers to as ”a tribe without women.” He turns the monastery into a men’s club, with the brothers playing ball, making popcorn, and modeling moccasins. This is when it’s tempting to call the movie a real turkey, and to pray that humor at the expense of monks is not a new Hollywood trend (it would be a blessing to forget the dancing monks in The Next Karate Kid).
The values the movie tries to impart — don’t judge an entire group of people by one or two individuals; hatred only leads to more hatred and violence; working together helps everyone — clearly warrant an A. But for entertainment value and sit-through-it-ness, Squanto has to get a C.