June 23, 1995
From Correspondent Carol Buckland
The latest animated feature from Walt Disney Pictures -- "Pocahontas" -- went into extremely limited release last weekend. It earned $2.7-million, playing in just six theaters. That's a record. "Pocahontas," which is rated G, is now in wide release -- going head-to-head with "Batman Forever."
The film is an ambitious blend of historic fact and romantic fiction. The story is based--very loosely--on the relationship between the Powhatan princess, Pocahontas, and the 17th century English explorer, Captain John Smith.
Pocahontas herself (lovely speaking voice by Irene Bedard, lyrically exquisite singing voice by Judy Kuhn) is a triumph. She is one of the smartest, most spirited Disney heroines ever. She's also a babe--a veritable Barbie in buckskin.
Captain John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson who makes a noble attempt at, uh, crooning) is a less successful character. Although he swashbuckles quite effectively on a number of occasions, he's a bit of a stiff. His face is far less expressive than some of the scenery! Still, the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas is probably one of the most overtly "sensual" in any Disney cartoon.
In secondary roles, there's Pocahontas' father, voiced by Native American activist Russell Means. He brings predictable dignity and power to his part. Oscar winner Linda Hunt sings and speaks as Grandmother Willow, a 400-year-old tree who counsels Pocahontas and flirts with Captain Smith. David Ogden Stiers (who played Cogsworth, the fussy timepiece in "Beauty and the Beast") is the bad guy, Governor John Ratcliffe. He's a gold-hungry social climber who's out to strip mine the New World and slaughter its native inhabitants (everybody hiss!!!).
The scenic animation is stunning and features a potent palette of greens and blues. The vista shots are truly memorable, showcasing the unspoiled majesty of an undeveloped landscape.
The score (by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz) is short on toe-tapping show stoppers, but is nonetheless effective and sophisticated. Actually, the music is probably better integrated into this feature than into Disney's previous cartoons. It's a grown-up job ....
...Maybe too grown-up. Although "Pocahontas" is rated G and is being pitched to the kiddies, this movie may end up appealing more to adults than little ones. Except for some comic relief by some really cute critters (a raccoon and a hummingbird), "Pocahontas" is rather short on laughs. It also features an ambivalent (and historically inaccurate) ending that will not send audiences out of the theater feeling upbeat and excited. Finally, while its messages about social tolerance and ecological responsibility are well-intended and admirable, they are laid on with a heavy hand at several points.
The bottom line: "Pocahontas" is not in the same league as "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Lion King." However, it is quality entertainment and fine family fare. And who knows--it may get kids interested in exploring American history!
LAURIN SYDNEY, Anchor: Batman isn't going to be the only blockbuster this summer. Pocahontas was shown at six exclusive engagements this weekend and pulled in about $450,000 per screen, which is expected to result in more than $200 million after the film opens nationwide on Friday.
Meanwhile, the animated film has a few critics, saying Disney is playing fast and loose with historical facts. Michael Okwu has more.
CHIEF POWHATAN: Something exciting is about to happen.
MICHAEL OKWU, Correspondent: Another animated tale from the dreamers at Disney - this one the first inspired by real-life legend.
Capt. JOHN SMITH: Who are you?
OKWU: Peacebroker, icon - to some, the original First Lady of America. ROY DISNEY, Vice Chairman, Walt Disney Company: We went and did our research.
OKWU: So, just as Captain John Smith had done hundreds of years ago, Disney scouted her home town. Jamestown, Virginia, right here on the bucolic banks of the James River-the first permanent English settlement in America. Looming in its center, a tribute to the pioneering captain. Deer graze where homes were once raised.
And archaeologists unearth history.
ARCHAEOLOGIST: [at dig site] Oh, I'm absolutely excited. This is where it all began.
OKWU: Here, the statue of Pocahontas, standing above the land she used to walk upon nearly 400 years ago. Since very little evidence exists of her actual physical features, the statue probably bears little resemblance to the Indian princess.
Some Native Americans say the film bearing her name hardly resembles her life.
Chief OLIVER PERRY, Nansemond Tribe: I don't think it presented a really accurate, historical picture.
SHIRLEY LITTLE DOVE CUSTOLOW, Pocahontas Descendent: My heart sorrows because Disney changed the history of Pocahontas. We still exist.
OKWU: And that from one of the filmmaker's consultants. More Hollywood romance run amuck, they say. [excerpt from film, 'Pocahontas' of Pocahontas singing and paddling a canoe]
By most accounts, Pocahontas was just around 10 or 11 years old when the English found Chesapeake Bay - hardly the buxom woman braving the currents here. And many Native Americans would just as soon leave off her film romance with John Smith.
POCAHONTAS: I can't leave you.
OKWU: Actually, they insist, she and Smith were just friends. Indeed, she later married colonist John Rolfe. But the filmmakers argue her history has always been in question.
DISNEY: This is our version, our interpretation of what we see to be the really important points about what this legend told.
PERRY: I'd like to see, as I said, the Indian history presented from an Indian perspective.
OKWU: Why all the fuss about a cartoon?
CUSTOLOW: If there was that mutual respect and honor for one another, we would never have to change history to make it say something else.
OKWU: Russell Means provides the voice for Pocahontas' father, Chief Powhatan, and applauds Disney.
RUSSELL MEANS: This is the best movie ever done about Indian people in the history of Hollywood. It's not a documentary. It's not a history lesson. It's a story for children.
OKWU: And big box office in Wonderland. Michael Okwu, CNN
Entertainment News, Jamestown, Virginia.
Copyright © 1995 Cable News Network, Inc.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.