Three things are inevitable in 1995: death, taxes, and Disney's Pocahontas. Although the company's 33rd animated feature doesn't open until June 23, the Native American heroine is already a schoolyard phenom just ask any 7-year-old and will soon be a marketing force to be reckoned with. A Disney source says the campaign for Pocahontas ''is every bit as great as it was for Lion King. In some aspects it's even greater.'' It's also being as carefully maneuvered as Sitting Bull's triumph at Little Bighorn. Among the strategies:
Indoctrinating kids early with a first peek at Poca as she's been dubbed by some at Team Disney on Snow White and on The Lion King Sing Along video, which were both released last fall. This was quickly followed by a four-minute song preview coattailed on the theatrical rerelease of The Lion King.
Fueling the media frenzy with a lavish Poca press presentation in New York's Central Park on Jan. 31.
Launching a 24-city mall display, which kicks off in San Diego on Feb. 3. The exhibit includes an animation kiosk where shoppers can electronically paint a cel from the movie and view a 26-foot replica of John Smith's ship.
*Deal making galore. Expect to see tie-ins with Nestlé (candy bars), Mattel (Pocahontas, Barbie-style), Payless Shoesource (moccasins), and Burger King (kids' meals). The fast-food chain, which distributed 30 million Lion King figurines, has ordered 55 million Pocahontas toys hoping to avoid last year's debacle, when it ran out of Lion King product in late July.
Despite the juggernaut, there is concern that Pocahontas can't possibly outdo Lion King, which has earned a record $306 million at the box office and an estimated $1 billion in retail sales.
For starters, there's the story itself, which for the first time in the history of Disney animation is based on American history. While scholars still debate Pocahontas' role in bringing peace to the early Virginia settlements, this version finds her cooling the empers of her Virginia tribe and the British settlers because of her love for Capt. John Smith (voice by Mel Gibson). ''But, generally, kids don't like history,'' says one exhibitor. ''Lion King had so much heart with its story of the father, son, and evil uncle. I don't know if Pocahontas has enough heart.'' Music from Beauty and the Beast's Alan Menken, however, should up the fuzzy factor, with help from the usual cabal of Disney sidekicks. This time out, there's a raccoon named Meeko and a hummingbird named Flit, who, oddly, don't talk, and a sagacious tree named Grandmother Willow, who does.
Since any film dealing with history is a target for controversy in these PC times, Disney has buffered itself against attack. It consulted with historians and Native American groups during the making of the film, and recruited Russell Means (The Last of the Mohicans) to provide one of the voices.
Lastly, there's the movie's unhappy ending the couple splits. ''This isn't another case of 'Bambi's mother,' '' says one Disney source. ''Kids will be happy with the way this movie ends. Trust me.'' One youngster agrees. ''Capt. John Smith sails off because he got shot and needs medicine. But we know he will get better and Pocahontas is happy he will get better,'' says a 9 1/2-year-old from the Los Angeles area who attended one of the studio's focus groups. The pint-size critic also singles out Meeko as a ''scene-stealer'' and squelches concerns that the film is too girlish for little boys. ''It's about a girl,'' he says, ''but it has a lot for boys because of the Indians and the fighting. I'd tell my friends to see it.'' Music to Mickey's ears.(Additional reporting by Jessica Shaw)