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'Pocahontas' Puts a New Face on Traditional Disney Story

June 29, 1995|LYNN SMITH | Lynn Smith is a staff writer for The Times' Life & Style section.

In Disney's "Pocahontas," the lovely, headstrong eco-warrior and the handsome, independent Capt. John Smith fall in cross-cultural love and for a moment stem the tide of greed and arrogance that eventually will destroy her culture. (Rated PG)


It's not history. It is Disney.

Who else can animate the essence of an ocean storm, a waterfall, a long sheet of hair flapping in the wind, create animals with more personality than most people or write songs that rhyme tomorrow with Pizarro ?

While "Pocahontas" pits good (the star-crossed lovers) against evil (the hypocritical English gold diggers) in the familiar Disney way, it also offers some twists. Indian fighter John Smith learns to regard nature as a teacher rather than as a commodity and finds out that people are not "savages" because they are different from him. Both camps realize love is stronger than hatred and death, but still the lovers are thwarted in the end.

"I liked it," said Katie Redford, 17. "It's one of my favorites out of all of [the animated Disney films]." While nothing can top "The Little Mermaid" for her, she said that the main song was lovely and that Pocahontas was haunting. "I just thought she was beautiful," she said.

Children too young to appreciate a romance, historical and political allusions or philosophical songs about life choices and nature ("You can never step in the same river twice") still came away mesmerized by the Disney image of Pocahontas--a Native American Barbie with English explorer Ken and cute forest critters as accessories. The littlest ones reveled in her tongue-twisting name.

"Pokanastis, Pokanastis," chanted 2-year-old Haley White as she jumped up and down in a pink Pocahontas T-shirt. "I liked the doggie. I liked the birdie," she said.

"I liked the raccoon the best," said Ashland Cork, 7.

School-age boys liked the slapstick. Chase Harmon laughed loudest at the Steve Martin-style arrow-through-the-head hat made by the aide to the English governor after his crew landed at Jamestown. "I have a nail like that, except it's not an arrow," he explained. He also liked the wise old spirit who inhabits a tree and uses her vines and roots to trip up the cowardly explorers when they attempt to thwart the romance between Pocahontas and Smith.

"I like what my brother likes," 5-year-old Tyler Harmon piped up.

Disney's social and environmental messages were over most small heads. Some were more concerned that Smith was wounded by the Indians than that Pocahontas' intended husband was killed by the English.

More than a few were disappointed that the story left them hanging without the expected fairy-tale ending.

"I don't think [Smith] should have left at the end," said Emily Hanson, 11. "He should have stayed."

Heather White, 8, said, "My whole family thinks that they cut it off in the middle." In her opinion, Pocahontas should have gone back to England with the wounded Smith.

Of course, history tells us the real-life Pocahontas did go to England--with her husband, who was not Capt. John Smith but a tobacco planter named John Rolfe. There she died at age 22, possibly of tuberculosis.

But young romantics seemed as unconcerned about historical accuracy as about a literal happy-ever-after finale.

"Of course, you always want them to be together," said Katie Redford. "But it kind of leaves it, like, their spirits are together."

At least, said Emily, it wasn't as sad as "The Lion King."

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