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Featured Blu-ray Review: Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World

August 19th, 2012

Pocahontas and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

From the 1970s to the 1980s, Disney animated films suffered in quality. It wasn't until The Little Mermaid that they regained their golden touch. From that film through till Tarzan, the studio produced hit after hit after hit. However, not all of the films were regarded as classics by the critics. Was Pocahontas one of the good films? And was its Direct-to-DVD sequel able to live up to the original?

Pocahontas

The film begins in England with men boarding a ship for the New World. John Smith is the most famous of the colonists and is called a legend by Thomas. However, Governor Ratcliffe is the one in charge, and he's brought his toady, Wiggins, and his pet pug, Percy, who is treated with more respect by Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe and his men are after all of the gold in Virginia, and are willing to kill any savages that get in their way.

It is at this point, we join the Algonquian tribe under the rule of Chief Powhatan. The Chief had just defeated the Massawomeck tribe in battle and the villagers are all there to greet him, all of them except Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), his daughter. She's off posing dramatically while atop a water fall. Nakoma (Michelle St. John) comes to retrieve Pocahontas, and her two pets, Flit and Meeko (John Kassir). After Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall) fought bravely in the war, he's asked to marry Pocahontas and the chief has agreed. He tells Pocahontas that she should be like the river, choose the smoothest path. However, Pocahontas has been having a recurring dream, and she thinks it has to do with her true path. So she rides her canoe to her ancestral spirit, Grandmother Willow, a talking tree, to ask her advice. Grandmother Willow tells her she must look for her path, but when Pocahontas looks, she sees the boat arriving. (And briefly spots John Smith.)

After a perilous journey, the English have arrived in the new world and they've come to do what they do best, sing and dance... and dig up gold. (They also blow up a lot trees.) While most of the crew are singing about gold, John Smith scouts in to the woods to see if he can find any savages. When he and Pocahontas see each other, it is love at first sight. Of course, when the rest of the Algonquian tribe interacts with the English, the result is war, not love. Because of this, John Smith and Pocahontas have to keep their relationship a secret, as a result, the film has more in common with Romeo and Juliet than it does with real history.

This film is, unfortunately, a mess. It borrows from too many sources. It purports to be based on a real story, but still uses Native American mysticism as key plot points. There's a talking tree in the movie. The main characters are either underdeveloped and dull (Pocahontas, John Smith, etc.) or cartoonish (Governor Ratcliffe) or pointless (all of the animals). We spend far too much time with the side characters, who as I just said, are pointless. Even worse, when we switch from the playful rivalry between Meeko and Percy to the deadly serious fighting between the Algonquian and the English, the change in tone it rather jarring. Of the numerous songs in the movie, only "Colors of the Wind" really stands out. The emotional numbers fail to make an impact, while the catchy songs are not memorable enough.

To be fair, Pocahontas isn't a bad movie and there are parts that are very well done, the look of the film is great. However, while almost everything works just well enough that it is worth watching, none of it works well enough to be considered a classic or even essential viewing. It is just uninspired and one expects more from a Disney theatrical release than just watchable.

Pocahontas II: Journey to the New World

This film is actually a sequel. A real sequel. It uses the same characters, for the most part, from the original film and treats them as a the main characters in this film. This is actually very rare for a Disney Direct-to-DVD sequel, most of which are pseudo-remakes starring the kids of the main characters of the first film, or midquels focusing on unrelated adventures of the main characters of the film. This gives the film a couple bonus points in my opinion. But is it enough to make it worth watching overall?

The film begins with John Smith (now voiced by Donal Gibson, Mel Gibson's brother). He's back in England when he is ambushed by soldiers, who try to arrest him for treason. It seems King James I believed Governor Ratcliffe's side of the story and John Smith is to be arrested. However, while trying to escape, he falls to his death. Ratcliffe is able to convince King James to prepare for war with the Native Americans and an armada of ships is readied, but it won't declare war until after John Rolfe, their diplomat, returns with Chief Powhatan. If Chief Powhatan can explain the events to the King's satisfaction, there will be no war. Since Rolfe is already on his way, they shouldn't have to wait too long.

With that we see John Rolfe's really bad computer animated ship sailing towards Virginia. It is shockingly bad. When we get to Pocahontas' tribe, we see Percy and Meeko playing, before they are joined by Pocahontas and Nakoma, who join in the fun. Pocahontas has heard of John Smith's death and is mourning, so this is just a little reprieve. When John Rolfe arrives, he has a run in with Pocahontas, but doesn't learn her name. When he hears some settlers talking about Pocahontas preventing a war, he assumes they must be talking about the chief, so when he comes to talk, he offers a gift to the mighty Chief Pocahontas. Not a good start to his diplomatic mission. Chief Powhatan refuses to go, because if the King of England won't travel, why should he. Pocahontas points out that someone must travel to England, but when John Rolfe says she is not up to the job, and after a talk with Grandmother Willow, she agrees to go with Uttamatomakkin coming along as a bodyguard. (Meeko, Percy, and Flit come along as stowaways.)

When they get to London Town, Pocahontas and Uttamatomakkin have to deal with culture clash, but John Rolfe has to deal with something more devastating. He learns from Governor Ratcliffe that the armada is already being prepared. If this is true, his mission was a lie. The King wouldn't have lied to him, would he? When he meets with the King, the King refuses to see Pocahontas, because he was supposed to talk to the chief directly. When Rolfe persists, Ratcliffe suggests inviting her to the Hunt Ball. Ratcliffe knows that she will never fit in, and if she doesn't, war will be assured. Pocahontas agrees to these conditions, but asks for John's help in learning the ways of British society. Of course something goes wrong, but the details are spoilers.

So how is the movie? I feel like I should cut and pasted my review for Scamp's Adventure, because a lot of what I said about that movie applies to this movie as well. It is only 73 minutes long, but feels a little padded. The songs are mostly forgettable. The animation isn't up to the quality of a theatrical release. On the other hand, the characters are more interesting in this movie when compared to Scamp's Adventure. In fact, in some cases, they are more interesting than the characters were in Pocahontas. Irene Bedard gives a better performance here than she does in the first film, while Billy Zane's portrayal of John Rolfe is more complex than John Smith was. The romance / love triangle aspects do feel tacked on, while both films suffer from a lot of historical inaccuracies.

The Extras

The extras on the Blu-ray are mostly for Pocahontas and include an audio commentary track, deleted scenes in storyboard form, deleted song, etc. There is a featurette on Hiawatha, which was a feature-film project Disney was working on, but when they couldn't get the story right, they shelved it. There is also the animated short, Little Hiawatha. Finally, there are BD-Live extras, but they haven't gone live yet.

The film looks and sounds fantastic. While Pocahontas isn't among the best of its era, the transfer is fantastic with sharp details, vivid colors, deep blacks, etc. There's no compression errors, print damage, etc. Some of the CG looks bad in the sequel, while the sequel also has weaker colors, lower details levels, etc. Likewise, the original has an immersive audio track with plenty of activity in the surround sound speakers, good separation, dynamic effects, an active subwoofer. The sequel is a little flatter and not as complex, but still good.

You'll have to pay $23 for both films, at least that's the current price on Amazon.com. That's not a bad deal for this type of release. I would break it down as $15 for the original and $8 for the sequel.

The Verdict

Pocahontas is one of the weaker Disney animated theatrical relases, but when compared to its source material, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World is one of the better Direct-to-DVD sequels. Neither is a classic, but if you liked the original, then the Blu-ray is worth the asking price.


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Filed under: Video Review, Pocahontas