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Pocahontas picks love over war, morals over excitement

Pocahontas

Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg.

Music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.

Voices by Mel Gibson and Irene Bedard.

Walt Disney Studios.

Sony Copley Place

By Audrey Wu

Pocahontas overflows with many trademarks of a Disney animated film: the absence of a mother figure (although she is referred to several times, Pocahontas' mother is presumably dead), a bosomy heroine who would surely be making tons of money in shampoo commercials if she really existed, a villain who takes his character flaws to a very unhealthy extreme, catchy songs, and animal characters who have more personality (and marketing potential) than most of the humans. There are, however, other important qualities that audiences have come to expect from these films, such as dazzling animation, an entertaining story, and many humorous lines of dialogue. On these points Pocahontas - while certainly enjoyable in its own right - unfortunately falls short of its predecessors.

Almost any elementary school kid in America can relate to the legend of Pocahontas, who at 12 years of age befriends English explorer John Smith and saves him from being put to death by her tribe. Disney takes the story, ages Pocahontas by about ten years, adds a romantic twist, and presents a 17th-century Romeo and Juliet story set in early America. There isn't much room for surprises in the plot of this new story. Pocahontas' father and friends warn her constantly about the explorers who invade their land and callously attack them, and John Smith's fellow explorers talk anxiously about the brutal "savages" who await them in the New World. The irony of these conversations is hard to miss, especially in one scene when both Native Americans and Englishmen are chanting to the same song, "Savages! Savages! They're not like you and me/ Which means they must be evil!" (Well, no one ever accused Disney of being profound.) It is then no surprise that when Pocahontas and John Smith fall in love, they decide to keep their feelings secret from their friends and family, especially since Pocahontas has already been promised to the leading warrior in her tribe.

The movie's other plot line concerns a greedy duke who sails from England to the New World with John Smith and his crew, scheming to obtain large amounts of gold from what he believes to be "fertile" soil by exploiting the manpower of the other explorers on the ship. The two story lines collide when the English explorers fail to find any gold and the greedy duke is convinced that the "savages" are hoarding it.

The development of romantic relationship in Pocahontas is disappointingly sparse. In recent Disney films (especially Beauty and the Beast), writers took ample time to develop romantic feelings in the male characters. In classic films like Snow White, the "love-at-first-sight" premise was made obvious. In Pocahontas, it seems as though the writers can't decide which path to take, and then struggle with the notion that a 90s view on love was something in-between. Pocahontas' first meeting with John Smith (and her miraculous mastery of perfect English, which seems to astonish Pocahontas' raccoon friend Miko) is strikingly similar to a "Me Tarzan; You Jane" encounter. And although it seems blasphemous to say, Pocahontas and John Smith are drawn to each other primarily by feelings of sexual lust. In fact, as the couple frolics in the woods together, Disney animators break new ground in the quality and quantity of G-rated lip action in an animated kids' feature.

A notable missing element from Pocahontas is any exciting, climactic fight scene in which the heroes eventually triumph over the villains. Such as it is, the fight scene in Pocahontas is not nearly as entertaining as those of other Disney films and is in fact tedious, predictable, and disappointing. Perhaps the writers decided that today's movies have too much violence, anyway (which should please Bob Dole, although he may not be so pleased by the on-screen lust which tries to compensate for the lack of violence).

In addition, the overall quality of animation of this film falls short of that of other Disney efforts. The artists attempt to duplicate nature's glory in many of the animated scenes, but meet with only mild successful. In too many scenes, the artists incorporate glittering leaves that float around the characters: After the tenth time, the leaves get pretty annoying. There are also several scenes of Pocahontas standing on a cliff, presumably deep in thought, but frankly, she just looks emotionally bereft. The music is fine, though, and nicely evokes native American rhythms and melodies without being overbearing.

I guess it is unfair to expect Disney to be able to live up to all the hype surrounding its newest release, especially after the immense success of the studio's previous animated films. Much of the time, it seems as if the writers realized that they were still riding high on the success of The Lion King and decided to rush the release of another film and make a quick profit before losing momentum. But overall, Pocahontas is in itself a pretty entertaining movie, replete with many funny and poignant moments.

Most importantly, it contains a timely message that speaks out against discrimination and emphasizes the importance of respect for all people and the environment, something that both children and adults can benefit from. I suppose the outward PC-ness of the film (and the film's heroine) strengthens its message, although I look forward to the day when Disney heroines don't necessarily look like Barbie's cousins. At less than ninety minutes in length, Pocahontas is successful in delivering to its audiences a brief diversion of animated fun.