Babes in Tribal-Land

Awake in the Dark

I don't think it's going too far to say that, for better or worse, the American family would not be what it is today without films from the Walt Disney studios. For many of us Boomers, the earliest memory of an indelible impression left by a mere movie is a scene from Pinocchio, Dumbo, orBambi. Even those born a generation later have had opportunities to see these films by means of Disney's policy of periodic re-releases in theatres. And the video revolution, of course, has enabled us to pick up a copy of Snow White or The Love Bug and watch it whenever we like.

For a time, Disney films were synonymous with "family" entertainment. The animated films, with their mythic stories and charming animals, are perfect for kids, and whatever their other weaknesses, Disney's animated films can always be counted on to be vastly superior in overall artfulness than the Saturday morning cartoons that seem to mesmerize all children.

In the late 1950s, the Disney studios began churning out live-action features that provided an alternative to animation and which also steered clear of depictions of explicit sex, violence, and more vicious forms of adult treachery. The intent was not expressly to sugarcoat the experience of living - an accusation leveled at Disney repeatedly and sometimes properly - but to make sure parents had an entertainment source for their children that did not unnecessarily or too quickly expose them to the harsh realities of life. (I'm having trouble remembering many titles of this type of picture, but I know they briefly made Dean Jones a star.)

Looking back on all those films through a modern sensibility, a picture emerges that has to be a little troubling. Taken together, Bambi, Dumbo, and Pinocchio could leave a very sensitive child traumatized for God knows how long. Each of these films, in its own way, savagely exploits fears of being separated from a parent. To this seven-year-old, the killing of Bambi's mother was a defining event. Note to parents: If you take your kids to a screening of Bambi on Sunday, do not be late picking them up from school on Monday.

Tapping into common fears and insecurities is not a low blow; in varying degrees all drama exploits them. But to tailor films with these themes to very young, impressionable children... I don't know, but this seems to be asking for trouble.

In the last 15 years or so, Disney has succeeded in shedding its old, mid-Sixties image as a purveyor of G-rated pabulum and has joined ranks with, and sometimes leads, the other studios in serving adult markets while retaining a virtual lock on animation.

With the emergence of its Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures distribution arms, the giant company now serves virtually every movie-going interest, including those who think a little sex and violence is a good thing. And since about 1989, the year the studio opened The Little Mermaid, Disney has taken a turn with its animated division, turning out richly conceived musicals with an abundance of vocal talent. At their best, as with The Little Mermaid, the result is something akin to a rousing Broadway musical. Beauty and the Beast followed The Little Mermaid and became the first animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar. Though not as much fun as Mermaid, the huge grosses for Beast could not be ignored, and the nomination was perhaps as much for the earlier picture as the latter.

Aladdin and The Lion King followed, with The Lion King setting new standards for the lucrative commercial tie-in markets.

Pocahontas is the latest, and once again the folks at Disney have us scratching our heads.

The problem is not politics; as has been reported elsewhere, this portrayal of the meeting of the title character and explorer John Smith has avoided both negative stereotyping and political correctness. What's interesting, and unsettling, is the physical depiction of Pocahontas herself. With her hourglass waist, large, gravity-defying breasts, and miles of thick, flowing, dark hair, this "Pocahontas" suggests a Playboy visit to the Reservation. In addition, the animators have drawn Smith as a tall, rock-jawed, square-shouldered, firm-muscled blond god. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the tribal council Ken and Barbie.

It's entirely possible that the animators wanted to make Pocahontas extra-convincingly beautiful in order to avoid charges of racism. But the other Native American characters in the film all have quite attractive, handsome and proud Native American faces. Pocahontas has the face of Audrey Hepburn.

It gets worse. Pocahontas has a female sidekick, a loyal young woman whose own physical beauty is almost a match for Pocahontas. Unfortunately for the sidekick (and could this be why she is only the sidekick?), Pocahontas has her outbreasted by about two to one.

What is the message here? One doesn't have to be a hard-line feminist to find Disney's depictions a little demented. Of course, beauty is a value in this and other cultures and it is appropriate that entertainment reflect those values. But portraying a significant character in American history as Tribal Babe is kind of nuts, even if she does show backbone and does not return to England with Smith. And excuse me for taking it too literally, but the film seems to be telling little girls in the audience that if you don't grow big breasts, you only get to be the sidekick.

The American Indian Movement's Russell Means has praised the film effusively, which may prove nothing so much as that the best way to silence potential critics is to give them jobs. (His is the voice of the chief.) In other ways, Pocahontas is a decent, entertaining film, even if the musical numbers are for the most part undistinguished.

But it does make you wonder what this set of animators would have done to the characters in The Brave Little Toaster. n

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