It’s no secret that the heroes and heroines of Disney cartoons tend to be cloyingly fresh-faced ingenues, far blander than anything around them (remember Snow White singing ”I’m Wishing” in a soprano so virginal it could deafen dogs?). On that score, Pocahontas, the new Disney animated feature, falls right in line with tradition. Pocahontas herself has been conceived as a strapping, high-cheekboned update of the usual Disney princess — she’s an aerobicized Native American superbabe, with long, muscular brown legs, regal shoulder blades, and silky black hair flowing down to her waist. With her vacuous Asian doll eyes, she looks ready to host Pocahontas’ House of Style. In the course of the movie, Pocahontas falls in love with the English sea captain John Smith, a hunky oak of blond manhood. (He’s voiced by Mel Gibson, who, unaccountably, sounds like Rob Lowe doing Mel Gibson.) As these two perfect specimens melted into each other’s arms, I began to look around for something a little…livelier to hold my attention. With dismay, I realize that virtually everything in the movie — every character, every story twist, every song — is as generic as the two hygienic lovers. As a fairy-tale confection, a kind of West Side Story in Jamestown, Pocahontas is pleasant to look at, and it will probably satisfy very small kiddies, but it’s the first of the new-era Disney cartoons that feels less than animated.
The studio’s last cartoon feature, The Lion King, had its Joseph Campbell-for-tots mythologizing, but it also had those jabbering hyenas and, of course, Jeremy Irons playing Scar the villain with a mellifluous growl of self-pity. The Lion King had voices. In Pocahontas, on the other hand, the characters are like automatons from Saturday-morning TV. Pocahontas’ father is a slow-talking tribal chief who speaks in mystical epigrams, and the man she’s supposed to marry is a young brave who never cracks a smile; they’re every cigar-store Indian come to (non)life. The villain, Governor Ratcliffe, who has led the white men’s gold-digging expedition to the New World, is a fat-cat blowhard with a fussy little moustache. I looked at his haggard moon face and kept wanting the voice of Alan Rickman or Tim Curry to emerge. Instead, David Ogden Stiers does routine British pomp. (He would have been a boring bad guy 30 years ago.) Pocahontas also has a couple of funny animal friends, a raccoon who flashes sour looks and a hummingbird who keeps getting his beak stuck where it doesn’t belong. Since neither one talks, it’s as if the standard comic relief had been muzzled.
The filmmakers play down almost every hint of prankishness and visual caprice, trying to get the movie to work as ”natural” drama. But why make a Disney cartoon and take all the fun out of it? Pocahontas is so thin and joyless and controlled that it never quite takes off. Since it’s hard to feel much amorous heat passing between drawn characters, the story, secondhand as it is (the climactic march to battle is nearly a shot-for-shot retread of the face-off between the Jets and the Sharks), is reduced to didactic liberal fable: Indians aren’t really ”savages,” love transcends skin color, etc. Did I mention that the Alan Menken-Stephen Schwartz songs have all the flavor of uncooked dough? There’s really only one invention in Pocahontas of any spark, and that’s an ancient tree that comes to life as the spirit of Pocahontas’ grandmother (she’s voiced by Linda Hunt and looks disturbingly like Robin Williams). The wizened old trunk cackles with such pleasure over her granddaughter’s beau that I started to think she wanted the guy all for herself. C