And the hits keep coming from Disney’s animation wizards, who, in “Pocahontas,” have turned a famous footnote to American colonial history into a surprisingly sensuous love story and antiwar fable.
As much as “Pocahontas” tinkers with what little is known about the American Indian princess who saved the life of a British adventurer, it’s still a risky departure from the usual fairy tale formula, if only because the lovers do not live happily ever after.
But the gamble works beautifully, thanks to more of the gorgeous animation we’ve come to expect from Disney, another delightful Alan Menken score - this one with lyrics from Broadway veteran Stephen Schwartz - and one of the most spirited heroines ever created in pen and ink.
Pocahontas actually was a child when John Smith arrived with the British settlers at Jamestown in 1607, but she’s no kid in this version of the story. Rather, as voice-acted by Irene Bedard and sung by Judy Kuhn, she’s a lovely and independent-minded young woman who doesn’t much care for the future her father, Chief Powhatan (Russell Means), has mapped out for her as the bride of the tribe’s bravest warrior, Kocoum.
The arrival of whites who, under the command of the greedy Gov. Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers), claim the land for King James and begin digging for gold, alarms and puzzles the natives. But after observing him secretly from a distance, Pocahontas is smitten by the handsome, blond Smith (spoken and sung by Mel Gibson), who returns the favor and through his affection for Pocahontas comes to appreciate the close relationship between the land and its inhabitants.
Defying their respective superiors, who begin preparations for a full-blown war, Smith and Pocahontas meet secretly in classic Romeo and Juliet fashion. But their clandestine romance is discovered by their friends, and the resulting confrontation only aggravates the hostilities.
While its dramatic story line and poignant ending are unusual, “Pocahontas” boasts several familiar elements of the animated Disney musical. Even without speech, Meeko the raccoon, Flit the hummingbird and Percy, Ratcliffe’s officious pet pug, are as funny a trio of critter sidekicks as the studio has created. Linda Hunt’s tree spirit, Granda Willow, is the resident sage.
Menken and Schwartz have contributed some wonderful songs, including at least one sure-fire hit in “Colors of the Wind,” a beautiful combination of ecology lesson and love song.
And then there’s the animation, not quite as spectacular as “The Lion King” as far as scenery goes - the purples and bright reds felt a bit over the top - but definitely in top form for the humans. Athletic and almond eyed, equally at home in a canoe and in the forest, Pocahontas is simply beautiful, as likely to charm the dads in the audience as the kids. Smith, meanwhile, is at least as hunky as that kilted dude Gibson played in “Braveheart.”
They make a compelling couple, and the transformation of their story, however apocryphal, into a parable about the need for understanding between cultures should charm the entire family.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Pocahontas” Locations: Lincoln Heights, Lyons and Showboat cinemas Credits: Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg; with the voices of Irene Bedard and Judy Kuhn (Pocahontas), Mel Gibson (Capt. John Smith), David Ogden Stiers (John Ratcliffe), Russell Means (Chief Powhatan), Linda Hunt (Grandmother Willow), Christian Bale (Thomas), James Fall (Kocoum) and Michelle St. John (Nakoma) Running time: 1:20 Rating: G