Will sticklers complain about the liberties Disney has taken with the facts that are known about the Powhatan girl who saved the life of Captain John Smith? Undoubtedly. She was 11 or 12 when the incident occurred, but for the purposes of the movie she’s been ripened a decade into the sexiest Disney heroine since Tinkerbell, and she’s been given a free spirit to match. Introduced in the quintessential Disney pose — alone atop a dizzying promontory — gazing out through almond eyes into the vastness below as the wind rifflesher endless, dark tresses, the girl’s something to behold.
Her father, the chief, wants her to marry the tribe’s bravest warrior, whom she finds too serious. She’s holding out for someone a little more exciting, something, as her first song puts it, “justaround the river bend.”
Excitement arrives in the form of John Smith, an adventurer accompanying a band of brutish, greedy, stupid men under the command of brutish, greedy, stupid Gov. Ratcliffe. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Spanish conquerors in search of gold, Ratcliffe (voiced by David Ogden Stiers) finds only corn, a major disappointment.
For Smith and Pocahontas, it’s pretty much love at first sight. He’s ruggedly blond, and, as if that’s not enough, he comes with Mel Gibson’s voice. She is equally blessed, not only with beauty but with the singing voice of Judy Kuhn, whose moody phrasings have always made her powerful soprano stand out from the bland pop phrasings of most of her Broadway colleagues. Irene Bedard provides her equally attractive speaking voice.
Broadway is a more than passing influence on “Pocahontas,” which owes its soul to “West Side Story.” The Powhatans fear the well-armed Englishmen invading their turf. Like Maria, Pocahontas has been marked for betrothal to an outstanding member of her tribe; like Tony, John Smith was his clan’s fiercest fighter until common sense — in this case, the natural beauty of the New World and the sight of Pocahontas — conspire to tame his heart.
The parallel reaches its apotheosis in the song “Savages,” which finds both groups preparing for battle by using the same word to describe the enemy, and the subsequent scene, in which the heroine bravely compels both sides to lay down their weapons.
The Powhatans have been created with considerable care. The chief (Russell Means) and the warrior he wants his daughter to marry, Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall), are both quite grave. Appropriately, there’s not a teepee in sight (less appropriately, there’s hardly a woman, either), and the tribe is at one with nature. The motherless (another Disney tradition) Pocahontas takes spiritual advice from a wise old willow (voiced by Linda Hunt), and her constant companions are a raccoon and a hummingbird who are always getting into trouble (though, sadly, they’re deprived of a “Hakuna Matata” number).
The rapacious British, on the other hand, barely have set foot on the Virginia shore before they’re stripmining the shimmering mountains, clear-cutting the lush forests and firing their rifles at anything red that moves. Even Ratcliffe’s bulldog is a pampered snob, until he’s set straight by his New World counterparts. There’s nothing redeeming about these Brits.
Unlike “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” in which the hero and heroine live happily ever after, “Pocahontas” takes a plot risk by ending with the injured Smith’s return to England alone. The film closes with Pocahontas back up there on the rock as his ship sails out of the bay. Some may find this dramatically unsatisfying, but it does keep the focus on her achievement, which is not a bad thing.
The Disney artists have created a vivid palette for the picture. The colors are intense and play with nature. The film’s theme is “The Colors of the Wind,” and the artists have taken that seriously. The Virginia air is always full of glimmering lights. The forests and mountains are majestically rendered, and some effects — sunlight through the forests, the falling water — are stunning. The human characters are beautifully rendered, though at times voices seemed out of synch with the mouths.
Although there’s plenty of action, “Pocahontas” doesn’t have any of the kind of violence that gave some parents (and critics) pause in “The Lion King.” It’s also not quite as archetypal a story, and it may not have the same universal appeal.
On the other hand, Pocahontas and John Smith are immensely appealing characters, and children should easily identify with them. It’s a terrific movie.