B y Z a c h a r y W o o d r u f f
LAST SUMMER, WHEN Disney bestowed The Lion King upon the world, I was aghast at the film's seeming political subtext. It was okay for the lions to regularly slaughter the antelopes, because "when we die our bodies become the grass and the antelope eat the grass, and so we are all connected in the Great Circle of Life," said Mufasa, sounding like a Republican defending trickle-down economics. And the hyenas, dark, dumb and speaking with exaggerated ethnic accents, seemed utterly racist creations. Some might say the idea of looking for adult metaphors in a children's cartoon is ridiculous, but the fact remains that a significant number of conservatives gleefully interpreted the ousting of Scar as a statement about what should be done with Bill Clinton. No foolin'.
So it is a pleasant surprise to discover in Pocahontas an opposite, and very liberal, political subtext. Is this all by accident, or is Disney up to something? Who knows. But if you look at The Lion King and Pocahontas side by side, the two films possess an undeniable symmetry. Each film's central character is a searcher who ultimately decides to choose an honorable path and settle a dispute. Each film contains mythic images of characters standing atop jutting stone outcroppings. And when Pocahontas sings, "We're all connected to each other in a circle--in a hoop that never ends," you can't help but remember Mufasa's words.
But this time we're looking at the other side of the circle; Pocahontas is the Yin to The Lion King's Yang. This one's a girl's movie, for sure, and during a packed Sunday-afternoon screening few boys were visible in attendance (probably turned off by the prospect of seeing icky kissing). It's also a piously P.C. story, with themes of racial equality, environmental preservation and pacifism. Very liberal stuff. Pocahontas is presented as a non-conformist who, but for her lack of armpit hair, is almost hippieish. She talks to trees. She communes with animals. She goes "wherever the the wind takes her" (did someone say "Hakuna Matata?"). And when Pocahontas is offered a hand in marriage by the toughest soldier in her tribe, she turns him down because "he looks so serious" (i.e. conservative). What a terrific gal! (It doesn't hurt that, as noted by The New York Times, "Pocahontas is a babe.")
The picture is a rather bold effort for Disney, which hasn't exactly been on the cutting edge of social enlightenment in most of its animated features. And there's even a bit of comic self-referential subtext to the character of Governor Ratcliffe, the snotty-voiced leader of the British explorers. There's an interesting analogy here: Having failed to find his fortune in Europe, the general attempts to dig for gold in Virginia ("Dig up Virginia, boys!" he sings) and is turned away. How Disney of him. He might well become the mascot for the company's theme-park expansion team.
Politically speaking, there are still a few areas worthy of criticism. Why does the drama of female characters in animated Disney films always hinge on their relationships to men? Why do so many recent Disney villains seem homosexual? And then there's the issue of the film's historical inaccuracy, which in Disney movies has become such a foregone conclusion as to be irrelevant. (Of course they're not going to portray Pocahontas as the 12-year-old she really was. That would be sick.)
Yeah, yeah, you may be thinking, but is the picture any good? Well, if your idea of "good" can be satisfied by a slick combination of Romeo and Juliet and Dances with Wolves, peppered with occasional doses of zany raccoon and hummingbird antics (to keep the kids awake), and heavily salted with Jungian archetypes, then yes, it's good. (Some viewers will give the movie bonus points because Mel Gibson, performing the voice of John Smith, does his own singing.) Personally, I think the sequence where Pocahontas runs through the forest crooning the song "Colors of the Wind" is worth the whole movie. The scene contains the film's most spectacular animation, neatly sums up the themes of appreciating nature and keeping an open mind to other cultures, and was widely aired as the film's trailer. After seeing those two minutes of perfection, what else do you need?
The rest of the picture, though of a consistently high quality, didn't do much for this viewer. To me, Disney movies always feel less like movies than commercials for themselves, where even the most heartfelt story sentiment seems empty compared to the enthusiasm of the marketing campaign. Do the sanctimonious messages in Disney movies really make a difference in children's moral makeups? That's a question worth pondering while shelling out $25 for Pocahontas sleeping bags, $8 for Pocahontas board games, $7 for plastic Pocahontas necklaces and cloth slippers, and similarly high amounts for puppets, action figures, and even--in an odd coupling of toy and metaphor--hula hoops.
Disney has paid a lot of lip service to "the circle of life," and it's easy to see why: They're getting stinking rich off of this "circle of marketing." I appreciate what they've tried to do this time with Pocahontas, but isn't it about time for more animated films that have fun just playing with the concept of animation? Luckily, there's relief coming 'round the corner in the form of a zippy looking computer-generated flick called Toy Story, which is simply about a bunch of toys that come to life. Sure, Toy Story is probably going to be as ferociously merchandised as any Disney effort, but at least its narrative cuts to the chase.
Pocahontas is playing at Century Gateway (792-9000) and Century Park (620-0750) cinemas.
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