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Pocahontas


In 1607, a ship of British explores from the Virginia Company sets sail to the ‘New World.’ Onboard the ship are Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson) and the voyage’s gold-hungry leader Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers). Meanwhile, back in the New World, Pocahontas (Irene Bedard speaking, Judy Kuhn singing), daughter of Chief Powhatan (Russell Means), dreads being married off to a brave but boring warrior named Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall). Pocahontas, along with her animal friends, the gluttonous raccoon Meeko and overprotective hummingbird Flit, visit Grandmother Willow (Linda Hunt), a spiritual talking willow tree. Grammie Willow verifies Pocahontas’ suspicions that Kocoum isn’t her romantic match and says that the oncoming Englishman may be ‘the one.’ The English arrive and begin tearing down nature in a fevered gold rush, much to the Native’s chagrin, and Smith departs to explore the wilderness where he encounters Pocahontas. Despite coming from different worlds (and a language barrier that is quickly hand-waved away) the two bond.

 Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World
Time has not been kind to Disney’s Pocahontas. In many ways, it marks the beginning of the animation studio’s second major slump, though, at the time it was still a pretty massive monetary success, but it was met with mediocre critical response and waves upon waves of political backlash. We’re getting closer to the film’s two-decade anniversary (17 years and counting), so it seems fair to re-evaluate it apart from era expectations. After all, nothing the studio could’ve made following the unprecedented success of The Lion King would entirely satisfy critics or audiences (the irony being that Pocahontas was considered the prestige project by most studio heavyweights over ‘that jungle picture.’

The truth of the film’s political status is complex. Sadly, this mostly disrespectful representation of Native American culture is reasonably progressive for a mainstream animated feature. Things haven’t gotten much better, but the early-mid ‘90s were a time when Dances with Wolves was celebrated from its supposedly progressive representation of the Sioux. It is a sizable step up from Peter Pan and ‘What Made the Red Man Red?’ and we don’t usually expect utter political correctness from vintage film. On the other hand, Pocahontas is a terrible, anglo-centric, often insulting view of actual historical events. It’s a massive lie filtered entirely through the eyes of the film’s white production, direction, and writing staff. In defense of Disney, there’s no way they were going to tell the historically accurate story of a 13-year-old Virginian Indian who was captured, held for ransom, and eventually married off to an adult Englishman. Even Terrence Malick chose to water down that particular tale. Yet, they still chose to adapt a hand grenade of a story with historical relevance and really should’ve expected to be put under the microscope for their decision, especially during the onset of the ‘cultural awakening’ known as ‘political correctness.’

 Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World
If we pretend there was no real-life Pocahontas or John Smith and that this film was freely adapted from a fairy tale, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas is still probably the studio’s weakest ‘second renaissance’ feature. The screenplay is dull retread of an already over-told legend that adds little character to the story (well, still more character than Avatar, which is, often noted as being basically the same story). Disney had more success with serious tones a year later when they released the underrated The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but here, the narrative drags between modestly amusing critter gags and Disney animation’s one constant quality standby – original music. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’ songs are generally well structured and blend into the film smoothly in a particularly Bernstein/Sondheim fashion, but their content and melodies are, unfortunately, mostly forgettable. The one thing even the most critical eye has to admit is that, technically speaking, Pocahontas is exquisitely animated. From the clean crisp lines to the uncannily realistic movement (attributed to rotoscoping, which is, arguably, cheating) and the immersive environments, there’s no complaining about the film’s immaculate visuals. The flip side of this argument being that Pocahontas is animated so steriley it lacks character and charm of Disney classics like 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book (animals aside), while also lacking the stylistic edge of the equally precise Sleeping Beauty.

Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World


Following the events of the first film, Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) escapes to London and lies to King James (Jim Cummings), framing the presumed dead Captain John Smith (Donal Gibson) as a traitor in a plot to declare war against the Powhatan Nation while avoiding punishment for his own crimes. In hopes of avoiding war, the King sends a young diplomat, John Rolfe (Billy Zane), to bring Chief Powhatan (Russell Means) to England for negotiations. In the New World, Pocahontas (Irene Bedard) mourns John Smith’s supposed death, but is eventually able to move on, and into a leadership position. Rolfe soon arrives, greeted by English civilians of Jamestown and a curious Pocahontas. Rolfe later overhears two women talking about Pocahontas’ ability to prevent the oncoming war and assumes it is the name of the Chief. That night Rolfe intrudes with a gift of a horse for ‘The Mighty Pocahontas.’ Rolfe realizes his mistake, but the stubborn Chief will not go to England himself, leading Pocahontas to volunteer. The next day, Pocahontas sets off for England with Meeko, Flit, and Percy stowing away on the ship, and a silent bodyguard named Uttamatomakkin.

 Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World
Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World is, in most regards, another average, straight-to-video Disney sequel, which is to say it’s still better than most STV animation. I hesitate to call it equal to the original film, but Pocahontas is a weak enough picture with a rich enough historical basis that I find myself forgiving many of Journey to a New World’s bigger flaws. The filmmakers make a rather bold choice in loosely following the real Pocahontas’ post-John Smith adventures, mainly because the real story’s values are not particularly playful or typically kid-friendly. Journey to a New World has its share of historical inaccuracies, but generally follows the true story at least as close as Pocahontas did, and does it without treating Native American culture in quite so insulting a fashion (though this is mostly inherent in the fact that much of the movie takes place outside of the Americas). The story here meanders without much of a specified conflict (something about Pocahontas and John Rolfe preventing war by attending a ball), but the dramatic thrust of each scene and the treatment of characters is relatively sophisticated, too sophisticated to mark it as just another studio cash-in. The animation certainly shows its lack of millions in basic terms – lack of background character movement, overuse of animation cycles, simplicity of the depth in background paintings, less impressive foreground and background blends, and very little in the way of shadows – but it looks better than many earlier Disney STV releases. The important character animation holds up pretty well and the cleanliness of the lines and colours looks quite fine, much like modern, serialized television animation.

Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World

Video


Pocahontas is presented in its source aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (it was shown in 1.85:1 during most theatrical showings in 1995) and in full 1080p video. Despite the film’s somewhat modest release, this transfer sits nicely among the studio’s finest HD releases. Considering the fact that Pocahontas’ values are almost entirely found in its majestic visuals and technical animation it’s probably a good thing that the film has never looked better outside of its original theatrical release. The transfer is overflowing with giant, super-colourful compositions that practically melt a standard definition disc. In the more modern Disney tradition, the palette changes between the moderately realistic and hyper-stylized hues, depending on the context (ie: ‘realistic’ story versus musical moments). Both styles are impressive in their own right, but the more abstract palettes are exciting and vibrant. The appropriately titled ‘Colors of the Wind’ sequence is likely the transfers’ reference-level moment for sheer quantity of elements. The image is so sharp that you can actually see the digital paint quiver a bit on the ever so slightly uneven, hand-sketched edges, not to mention the most minute pencil scratches and background paper textures. There are some cell-based artefacts along some of the penciled images, but very little in terms of compression noise, banding effects, or digital haloes. Plenty of scenes take place in comparative darkness and these aren’t really any more noisy or mushy than the big bright sequences. The dark scenes also feature the more impressive hue blends and contrasting highlights.

Journey to a New World looks just as sharp and bold in 1080p, but its comparative monetary shortcomings do mark it as less impressive than the first film. Besides some of the animation’s problems in movement and complexity, the major comparative lapse is that of depth – there simply aren’t as many layers to this cheaper animation. But details are no less sharp, despite the lack of depth and the computer-assisted colours and outlines remain consistent throughout thanks to a lack of digital compression. The included DVD copy has some real trouble with blocking effects along the brighter reds and general noise around the background elements. There’s so much digitizing of the various elements that there’s not a lot of room for grain or even paper texture, but there isn’t any real sign of digital tampering for the sake of this release, either.

 Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World

Audio


Pocahontas’ new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack more or less matches the DVD release, but benefits from the relative lack of digital compression in terms of volume and clarity. This isn’t quite as busy as other era productions, like Aladdin or The Lion King, and the majority of the heavy stereo and surround elements are devoted to the thick musical score. The instrumentations are rich, sharply separated, widespread, and feature plenty of wistful directional movement. The LFE channel also effectively supports the percussive elements. The ambient nature effects aren’t exactly a persistent element, but can be so effective that I found myself foolishly looking around the room, afraid a real bird had broken into my apartment. Additional standout stereo and surround effects include Grandma Willow’s radiating ‘angry voice,’ hordes of men approaching from off-screen, and the burst of musket gunfire. The vocal performances are clear without sounding so uniform that they lose performance (though even with the sound this perfected, Mel Gibson’s performance doesn’t match the animation any better).

Journey to a New World’s new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is immediately surprising in exactly how loud it is. No compression artefacts here. There’s also a shocking amount of directional influence in both music and sound effects, especially considering the film’s STV trappings. There seriously might be more directional involvement here than even the multi-million dollar original, and the warmth and separation of the less-than-impressive musical score is never short of incredible. Actually, it might be too loud at times, but it never gets in the way of an important bit of dialogue. Standout audio moments include the scene where Pocahontas is forced by Grandmother Willow to meditate, only to be pestered by the chewing and chirping of her woodland friends, the bear-baiting scene, and the climatic, rainstorm-covered battle aboard Ratcliffe’s ship.

 Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World

Extras


Extras begin with a commentary track on the first film, featuring co-directors Eric Goldberg and Mike Gabriel, and producer James Pentecost. This is the same track that was included on the 10th Anniversary DVD release, though apparently minus discussion of the song that was added to that release and is not present here. Drawing Inspiration: The Lost Story of Hiawatha (11:50, HD) covers the production art and script development from an unrealized Disney 1949 production about the legend of Hiawatha, which was a minor inspiration on Pocahontas. Following an introduction, Pocahontas director Eric Goldberg narrates the basics of the unproduced feature, set against storyboards and other illustrations. The other extras include an originally deleted, then reinstated song entitled ‘If I Never Knew You’ with optional commentary (4:50, HD), The Music of Pocahontas (7:10, SD), nine deleted scenes (15:30, SD), Little Hiawatha animated short (9:10, HD), ‘virtual vault’ BD-Live extras, and trailers.

 Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World

Overall


The original Pocahontas remains one of Disney’s weaker modern animated features, but it certainly looks and sounds great in HD and DTS-HD MA sound, thanks in no small part to its glorious and expensive animation. The second film, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World is surprisingly more satisfying on an adult level of storytelling, though it falls short a bit in terms of animation due to a much smaller budget and turn-around time. Still, I’m pretty impressed with this, my first time seeing the sequel. The extras on this disc pertain only to the first film, but cover most of the bases, including a directors and producer commentary, a few new HD items, and a BD-Live link to all the previous special features.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the Blu-ray screen-caps.


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