The blitzkrieg of ''Pocahontas'' -- Disney's 33rd animated film tries to get history correct

Pocahontas looms over America.

A gigantic image of the tawny, buckskin-sheathed Indian maiden shimmers across four mammoth screens, each one 80 feet high. The storied princess gazes unflinchingly out at her audience, 100,000 strong, strewn across 20 acres of the Great Lawn in New York City’s Central Park like supplicants before a sacred temple. They’ve come from across the country to be here on this damp Saturday night, chosen by lottery — one entered by more than half a million people representing all 50 states — which earned them the right to camp out in the park for more than seven hours, clash with strangers to protect their blanket-covered swatch of AstroTurf, and sit in a cool drizzle to stare slack-jawed at an 85-minute cartoon.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Disney, where cinema is spectacle, marketing is a religion, and a million-dollar promotional event, like the June 10 world premiere of Pocahontas in Central Park, is a matter of course. This G-rated Lollapalooza is the official kickoff to a promotional blitzkrieg that Disney hopes will have even the most apathetic consumers spinning in their moccasins. By the time the movie opens nationwide on June 23, audiences will have already been bombarded with Pocahontas candy bars, dolls, and Burger King kids’ meals. All told, a team of major corporations ranging from Chrysler to Payless ShoeSource will reportedly spend a combined $125 million marketing Pocahontas-abilia, ensuring that this will be one very long Indian summer.

At the heart of this swirling mix of merchandising and cross-promotion is Disney’s 33rd animated feature, an intimate, mature-themed love story which attempts to combine American folklore, political revisionism, fuzzy animals, adult contemporary songs, and teen-appeal romance. A heady task to begin with, made even more difficult by the film’s imposing predecessors. Actually, considering the ludicrous amounts of money made by recent Disney projects — topped by last year’s $313 million-grossing The Lion King — any new animated film would have faced enormous pressure.

But in many ways, Pocahontas was problematic from the start. Not only is the film based on historical events, a first for Disney animation, but it is also unusually solemn in tone and presents a minefield of ethnic issues. And most notably, Pocahontas is the first animated film to be completed since the August 1994 departure of studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, long hailed as the czar of Disney animation. All of which makes this estimated $55 million feature the first big gamble of the post-Katzenberg Disney era. ”Sure, there are risks,” says producer James Pentecost. ”But all told, I think we have a very persuasive story.”

Pocahontas was born — and see if this isn’t Disney-scripted — during Thanksgiving dinner in 1990. Director Mike Gabriel was looking for a project to pitch, rolling over in his mind such classic Western stories as the tall tales of Annie Oakley or Buffalo Bill. At the same time, Disney executives were searching for a Romeo and Juliet-type story to animate (one, of course, that didn’t end with the lovers committing suicide). ”Finally,” says Gabriel, ”Pocahontas banged into my head and I just thought, ‘Well, hello there!”’