POCAHONTAS - DVD review

Pocahontas is a touching tribute to the power of loyalty, courage, cooperation, and, more than anything else, sympathetic understanding.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Disney's "Pocahontas" came out the same year, 1995, as Disney/Pixar's "Toy Story," and I wonder if the coincidence didn't signal the beginning of the end for traditional full-length animated features. Although "Pocahontas" did very well at the box office, there is no arguing that audience demand for anything but CGI animation has been on the decline ever since. One of Disney's last traditionally animated films, 2002's "Treasure Planet," bombed big time. So, we might have to cherish what we've got from the company that started it all back in 1937 with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Certainly, this new 10th Anniversary edition of "Pocahontas" looks better than ever.

Before we begin, though, perhaps it's best to know a little something about the real-life Pocahontas, whose personal name, says the "Encyclopedia Britannica" was Matoaka, "a Powhatan Indian woman who helped maintain peace between English colonists and Native Americans by befriending the settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, and eventually marrying one of them. Dramatic accounts of her unusual role have immortalized her name in American folk history."

The encyclopedia goes to say that "Matoaka, whose pet name was Pocahontas (translated variously as 'frolicsome' and 'my favorite daughter'), was the daughter of Powhatan (as he was known to the English), chief of a confederation of some 30 tribes of the Tidewater region. Pocahontas was a young girl when she first became acquainted with the colonists who settled in the Chesapeake Bay area in 1607. She first entered the historical record in that year when she (supposedly) interceded to save the life of Captain John Smith, military leader of the months-old Jamestown settlement, who had been taken prisoner by Native Americans. In later, perhaps fanciful versions of Smith's story, she flung herself over him as his captors prepared to club his head on a stone. At her urging Smith was released to return to Jamestown. She subsequently became a frequent visitor in the settlement, sometimes bearing gifts of food to relieve the hard-pressed settlers. Her playful nature made her a favorite, and her friendship proved valuable to the settlers in helping to preserve peace.

After Captain Smith's return to England in 1609, relations between the settlers and Powhatan gradually deteriorated. In the spring of 1613, however, Captain Samuel Argall took her prisoner, hoping to use her to negotiate permanent peace. Treated with great respect and courtesy during her captivity, Pocahontas was converted to Christianity and was baptized Lady Rebecca. She was ransomed by her father but had in the meantime fallen in love with John Rolfe, a distinguished settler; both the Virginia governor, Sir Thomas Dale, and Powhatan agreed to a marriage, and peace prevailed as long as Powhatan lived.

In the spring of 1616 Pocahontas and her husband sailed with Governor Dale to England, where she was lionized by society and presented at the court of James I. While preparing to return to America, she contracted smallpox and died." So, that's about the extent of what's known about the real historical character.

As DVD Town reviewer Kevin Kaup wrote about the previous edition of "Pocahontas" a few years ago, the movie is "a poor history lesson, but great entertainment." Let me go on and quote more of Kevin's insight: "Disney's 'Pocahontas' is something of a Romeo and Juliet variant, with both lovers coming from warring factions. Neither dies at the end, but they are still kept apart by circumstances and responsibilities."

Kevin reminds us that "critics panned 'Pocahontas' in its theatrical run due to Disney's stance as historical revisionist. However, it is an important film for several reasons: one, it proves that a Disney film can succeed without a happy ending; two, it is one of the few Hollywood films to give Native Americans a fair shake, with their society and culture seen from within, and their agrarian and ecology-friendly tendencies celebrated; and three, it is the first real attempt by Disney, since 1959's 'Sleeping Beauty,' to evoke a more geometric, flat appearance in their animation, rather than going for realistic shadings and forms. This neo-geometric look would continue in a rather exaggerated form in 'Hercules,' and to a lesser extent in 'Mulan.' The current trend in animation is for realism, but there is something to be said for the simplicity of lines, shapes and solid color.

Mel Gibson provides the voice for John Smith, and Irene Bedard for Pocahontas. They both have wonderful voices, very well-suited to their characters. Disney standby David Ogden Stiers (he was Cogsworth in 'Beauty and the Beast' and the Archdeacon in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame') provides the voices of both Ratcliffe AND Wiggins (the guy has range), and Billy Connolly's voice is easy to recognize as Ben, one of John's shipmates. Rounding out the exceptional voice talents is Linda Hunt as Grandmother Willow."

Thank you, Kevin; I couldn't agree with you more. "Pocahontas" is, indeed, a minor Disney classic, and while it is rather light on characterization, it has a few lovely tunes and some attractive animation that keep things moving. I enjoyed it marginally better than I did Disney's "Sleeping Beauty," which is generally considered the superior movie, but that's just a very personal reaction.

We have to understand going into this film, though, that it is a Disney concoction meant primarily as family entertainment, meaning suitable for kids as well as adults. As such, we shouldn't expect the kind of historical accuracy we would find in Gibson's "Braveheart," for instance. Still, I can understand how some folks familiar with the real-life Pocahontas tale would be disappointed with the liberties Disney took in describing the Pocahontas-John Smith romance, in portraying the Native-American girl as a sexy and curvaceous late teen rather than the more-probable twelve-year-old that she was, or in depicting the surrounding Virginia flora and fauna as looking typically fairy-tale "Snow Whitish." Indeed, even the incident upon which the whole story is based, Pocahontas's saving the life of John Smith, is open to debate, its authenticity based almost exclusively upon Smith's subsequent and highly dubious record of events. Anyway, it's not the history lesson that counts but, as Kevin has said, the entertainment. It is not a story of the way things were, but a story of the way we wish things had been. It is, in fact, a Disney world, filled with love and accord and ultimate joy. If only.

Now, we have the 10th Anniversary Edition of "Pocahontas," with two versions of the movie on disc one of a two-disc set. There is the original theatrical-release version of the movie and a new Anniversary version that includes the previously deleted song "If I Never Knew You," performed by Mel Gibson, integrated back into the framework of the story.

The movie recounts the exploits of the first group of English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia; and the tone is set from the outset with a storm at sea that reveals Captain John Smith as courageous and self-sacrificing. He's also handsome, blond-haired, and blue-eyed, yet despite his heroic acts and his Mel Gibson voice, he comes off as a somewhat bland fellow. In the New World we meet Pocahontas (speaking voice by Irene Bedard; singing voice by Judy Kuhn), the daughter of Chief Powhatan (Russell Means). She is intended for marriage to a young man named Kocoum (James Apaumut Fall), but she finds him "too serious." The villain of the piece is the English governor, Ratcliffe (Stiers), who is only in America for gold and glory and willing to kill for it. The comic relief is provided by Disney stalwarts, small cuddly animals, in this case a racoon named Meeko (John Kassir), a hummingbird named Flit (Frank Welker), and a dog named Percy (Danny Mann). Linda Hunt voices a talking tree, Grandmother Willow, and Christian Bale is Smith's friend, Thomas.

As we might expect, the Native Americans are portrayed as living an idyllic life in a kind of paradise or Eden in the New World. Rightfully, the English settlers are portrayed, at least at first, as usurpers, plunderers eager to take by force what clearly doesn't belong to them. Along the way to a peace accord, Pocahontas, Smith, and Ratcliffe sing a series of tunes that thankfully punctuate what could have been a tedious narrative without them.

The original music and score are by Alan Menken ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame") and the lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "The Prince of Egypt"). Things begin with "The Virginia Company," a nice rousing song by the English adventurers. That's followed by a fascinating rhythmic tune, "Steady As a Beating Drum," a picturesque view of the Native-American pastoral scene. "Just Around the River Bend" and "Listen With Your Heart" are sung by Pocahontas as she looks forward to her life and following the guidance of her instincts. "Mine, Mine, Mine" is a playful ditty revealing the Governor in all his greed, followed by the showstopping "Colors of the Wind," an appealing song on the virtues of diversity. "If I Never Knew You" is a romantic ballad initially cut from the theatrical version of the film, restored and sung by Smith and Pocahontas. "Savages" is the final tune, in which Ratcliffe's hatred knows no bounds. Reprises of "If I Never Knew You" and "Colors of the Wind" are played over the closing credits.

"Pocahontas" is a touching tribute to the power of loyalty, courage, cooperation, and, more than anything else, sympathetic understanding. It will not raise our consciousness of history any better, but it may inspire us to get along with one another all the more. Fair enough.

Video:
Kevin complained in his review of Disney's first DVD release of "Pocahontas" that the picture quality was excessively grainy, grainier than his laser-disc copy of the movie. As he put it, "the grain was so bad at some points that I began to wonder if it was pixilation and artifacting at work. The laser may be softer in details (and the reds and blues may be a bit too intense compared to the DVD), but the softness tends to tone down the graininess, making it much easier on the eyes."

I'm pleased to say this fully remastered, THX-certified edition of the movie has rectified those problems. The picture has been transferred to disc at a very high bit rate and enhanced for 16x9 televisions to good effect. The colors are beautifully vibrant, and there is virtually no grain to be seen that isn't normal to good film stock. There are occasional instances of almost unnoticeable line shimmer, but it's hardly an issue. Also, while the keep case proclaims the screen size to be in a 1.66:1 ratio, it measures out at a wider, nearly 1.78:1, anamorphic ratio. Kevin will be happy.

Audio:
The sound, too, has been remastered to THX specifications, this time in Dolby Digital 5.1. The results are smooth, well-detailed, and well-balanced sonics in the front channels, as well as a good stereo spread. The surround channels are used almost entirely to support a subtle musical ambiance, so expect no big, theatrical effects. Nor expect any ultra-strong dynamic impact or deep, thunderous bass. The soundtrack goes for ultimate listenability and eschews dramatic spectacle.

Extras:
The first disc in the set contains two editions of the film, the 10th Anniversary version and the original theatrical version. The difference is that the Anniversary version contains the previously deleted song "If I Never Knew You." Note, however, that the Anniversary version is the default and to play the original theatrical version you have to access it via the Main Menu's "Setup" screen. Also note that the optional audio commentary by producer Jim Penecost and co-directors Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg is only available on the Anniversary version. The Anniversary version is eighty-four minutes long, the original version is eighty-one minutes, and both versions come with twenty-eight scene selections. English, French, and Spanish are available as spoken language choices, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

In addition to the two versions of the movie, disc one contains a Disney art project, in which children can learn to make several Native-American items from common household objects; and a "Follow Your Heart" set-top game, in which children answer questions about the story and mark their choices. Then, there are two sing-along songs with on-screen lyrics, "Colors of the Wind" and "Just Around the Corner," both in fullscreen. The first disc concludes with a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibrations and Sneak Peeks at nine other Disney titles, including "Cinderella" and "Tarzan II."

If the extras on disc one are aimed mostly at kids (the commentary excepted), the ones on disc two are more mature. First, there's a twenty-eight-minute documentary, "The Making of Pocahontas," made in 1995 and hosted by Irene Bedard, the voice of Pocahontas and clearly the inspiration for the animated character's appearance. The documentary tries to explain some of the real events behind the romanticized legend, as well as provide behind-the-scenes glimpses at the characters, the story, and the music. This is followed by three general sections: (1) Production: "Early Production," three minutes; "Storyboard-to-film Comparison," one-and-a-half minutes; and "Production Progression," three minutes. (2) Design: a series of bits on each of the main characters, showing how they were created, with narration, animation, and still photos. (3) The Music of Pocahontas: A featurette, seven minutes; a music video, "If I Never Knew You," four minutes; and the making of "If I Never Knew You," four minutes explaining why the song was cut and why it was eventually restored. After those are eight specific deleted scenes and one miscellaneous collection of deleted scenes, mostly in rough sketches, some of them with optional audio commentary. Finally, there are featurettes on the picture's release, including two fullscreen theatrical trailers; the film's première in Central Park; a multi-language reel showing bits of the film in Norwegian, Italian, Swedish, Korean, Turkish, etc.; and a publicity gallery of stills that can be blown up for closer study. For those who want more, check out the DVD Town interview with Bedard, who shares her feelings about giving voice to the famous Native American.

The two discs come housed in a slim-line keep case, further enclosed in a slick, fancy slipcover. An informational insert contains chapter titles and a guide to the many features on each disc.

Parting Thoughts:
"Pocahontas" won two Academy Awards: for Best Original Music and for Best Original Song, "Colors of the Wind." The movie may not be one of the top-ten greatest animated features ever made, but it is beautiful to behold, sentimental, and affecting. Frankly, I don't think Disney has topped it since as a traditional animation, not even with "Tarzan" or "Mulan," and the way things look with CGI, they may not top it any time soon.

Ratings

Video
9
Audio
8
Extras
7
Film Value
7