Near the beginning of "Pocahontas," the new Walt Disney animation, the heroine and her father come up with different interpretations of the river that runs through their land. Stodgy parent that he is, Powhatan sees it as a reliable presence that's always stable and dependable. But his daughter finds it a changing, dynamic force full of excitement and surprise.
Disney likes to think of its 33 feature-length cartoons as belonging to the latter category - a moving, shifting stream always ready to embrace new material. The variety of that material is certainly broad, ranging from age-old legends and fairy tales to contemporary stories like "101 Dalmatians," literary yarns like "The Little Mermaid," and original projects like "The Lion King."
After a little thought, though, one realizes that Disney's animated oeuvre is more like the river as Powhatan sees it: large, pleasant to look at, and comforting in its consistency. But it doesn't encompass the world with the flexibility Pocahontas values. Quite the contrary, it bends the world to suit its needs, dictated by a narrow vision of the marketplace Disney serves.
This explains how "Pocahontas" can mark an innovation for the studio - it's their first animation based on a real-life person - without giving the slightest sense of entering fresh territory.
The heroine is beautiful and frisky, the hero is square-jawed and sturdy, the animals are adorable and anthropomorphic. The drawings are equally irresistible, combining time-tested imagery with fashionable touches. All of which fits the pattern of Disney cartooning. The movie gives a delightfully smooth ride, and you always know where you're going. But don't raise your expectations too high if you share Pocahontas's taste for free-spirited adventure.
Most moviegoers will find nothing to complain about as "Pocahontas" spins its well-known story about an Indian princess who falls in love with an English colonialist, schools him in native American ways, and saves him from her father's deadly wrath when warfare breaks out. Indeed, the steadiness of Disney films is considered pure gold by parents looking for child-friendly entertainment.
What bothers me isn't the relative worth of any Disney picture, but the way these movies have evolved - or failed to evolve, clinging to formulas that refuse to grow in any but superficial ways.