Now that 10 years have disappeared and “Pocahontas” is far out of the shadows of “Toy Story” and the prestigious Disney animated films that predated it, it is now in a place, with the arrival of the “10th Anniversary Edition” on DVD, to be examined as a separate entity. For in 1995, there was not only the upcoming behemoth that was “Toy Story”, but also what had come before “Pocahontas”. “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty & the Beast”, “Aladdin”, and “The Lion King” had all revitalized the Disney name to a modern splendor, so much so that it was wondered widely whether Pocahontas would follow that royal line.
“Pocahontas” is fourth in the recent to not so recent Disney pantheon in having a female lead character that’s without a mother. Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine all had fathers, but no mothers and here, Pocahontas (voice of Irene Bedard) has her father, Chief Powhatan (voice of Russell Means), and her mother exists as a spirit in the winds. The winds also bring to the shores of pre-Jamestown, a band of English settlers, with an ensemble including Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers), a few rough-and-ready shipmates (including Billy Connolly as one of them), and the adventurous, confident man with the most plain name ever borne on this Earth, John Smith (Mel Gibson). Naturally, racism and little education is a staple of this crew, led on by Governor Ratcliffe, scheming to use these men to have at the gold he believes is in the ground, waiting for his greed to arrive.
The well-worn theme of two separate worlds, with not much hope throughout for some kind of peace, is spread all around. Ratcliffe rallies the men to find the gold and kill the savages if necessary while Smith meets Pocahontas in the midst of a mist and learns the life of an enlightened man. Suddenly, he sees through her rendition of “Colors of the Wind” that this land is not only breathtaking, but wonders why we all can’t just get along. The animation in “Pocahontas” is a testament to the constantly evolving skills of the various animators involved, drawing characters that manage to make an impact, even if only a small one. And the backgrounds have always been a specialty of the Disney line of films, works with which you could paper your entire house. Even a night sky of theirs becomes fodder for rooftop painting, if ever such a desire was seized upon.
Naturally, this having been a Disney film in the middle of the ‘90s, there are a set number of songs, including a convivial chorus singing of their allegiance to the Virginia Company before and on their way to the New World from London. This one’s also responsible for a spectacular shot right at the beginning, where, as the men on board finish their song, the camera swoops down, past the stern of the ship, looking right ahead at the fog surrounding everything for a brief moment. However, there was no hint taken by Disney that even though songs may have been taken out during the production of a movie, it doesn’t mean they should go back in. The only success that this kind of formula has ever had was with “Beauty and the Beast” and the song, “Human Again”, which was perfect because there was more time spent with the non-human characters, and their excited musings on what they were going to do when they got back to human form. It was an extravagant, exciting number and excepting the scene where Belle teaches the Beast how to read (excuse me? Man with a huge library like that doesn’t know how to read? I never bought it), it fit seamlessly into the film when it was brought to IMAX and then to DVD.
But now, the entire idea has burned up twice. In “The Lion King”, they unnecessarily put in the song “Morning Report”, which was an expansion of Zazu’s report on the happenings in the pridelands, set to music. What was wrong with Rowan Atkinson merely ticking off the latest news while Mufasa taught Simba how to pounce? That was the whole point. Zazu gets so caught up in his reporting that he’s caught unawares of the preparations for pouncing taking place behind him. “If I Never Knew You” is confined to the same kind of fate, uselessness where it’s not needed. The song was sung in the end credits by Jon Secada and Shanice, with some of the music threaded throughout the film. It was taken out due to lukewarm reaction at a test screening for kids and a later on for teenagers, even though the adults of wherever they tested the film took to it agreeably. It should have stayed out.
The song is now inserted into the scene where Smith is a captive of the Indians, tied to a wooden pole in a tent, and Pocahontas comes to see him. Now it’s not so simple a matter of merely expressing their love for one another which worked so well by the line in which Smith says he’d rather die tomorrow than live 100 years without having known her. Cute. And that was enough. That’s all that needed to be there. Hadn’t the animators picked up on the poignance at the end of “Colors of the Wind” between the two characters? Wasn’t that enough of an indicator that they were more than just merely attracted to each other? Now we have, get this, Mel Gibson singing. And folks, he’s not a very good singer. High notes are not his drinking buddies. It’s fortunate that there is an option on the DVD to stick with the original release. With the song in there, we’re subjected to four unnecessary minutes of them expressing love that was expressed in quieter ways. Was subtlety alien to the minds of Disney in that decade?
Pocahontas also has her faithful animal friends, Meeko the raccoon and Flit the hummingbird, while Governor Ratcliffe has his spoiled pooch, Percy. Animal comedy of their kind is mildly amusing at best. Lastly, there’s one theme that’s not broached fully, that of one man dominating an entire group to the point where they hang on his words, especially that man not only being Ratcliffe, but being governor. How long do you believe authority before you revolt? These men are overtaken by his actions, prejudiced as he is. The only time they turn their minds on a dime and realize that Indians are human too is when Ratcliffe is near defeat. No rising suspicion crops up among the men. Inability to conjure up individual thought is probably also what got them on these ships. That and motivation toward the gold.
“Pocahontas” is a beautiful film many times over in its visuals. And being away from its high-powered predecessors, it has marched on well on its own. It’s a pleasant journey, though the same cannot entirely be said for the DVD set in which the “new song” is not only what’s here. Try a useless audio commentary. You want one? Here it is. Producer James Pentecost, and directors Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg get together 8 years later (factoring in those 8 years since the film was released, this commentary was recorded in 2003) to reminisce on the impact of the film, the revelant social messages Pocahontas brings to the world today, the arduous yet rewarding process of animation, and the need to explore the passions of oneself while working to make the best film possible for the enjoyment of millions around the world. Yeah right. There’s about one or two punchy stories and the rest is filled with reiterating what’s on screen, as if talking about it in a different way will make them sound smarter about the movie. The standard technical details are covered here, but it’s not even worth the troubled time it takes to go through it.
For the kids, there’s a brief art project program for building either a dream catcher or a drum, a game where the characters need to be identified by what the did in the film, sing along versions of “Colors of the Wind” and “Just Around the Riverbend”, which recall the days of those Disney Sing Along Songs videos. On second, third, and fourth thought, let’s not recall. Vanessa Williams’ music video for “Colors of the Wind” is on here too and then it’s on to disc two.
“The Making of Pocahontas” isn’t much; only a few minutes of interest to be had by the actors voicing their roles, including Mel Gibson. Speaking of that, this whole review now has no choice but to go one way: the complete lack of something really solid about the production, something to really get into that makes this DVD set worthwhile. “Pocahontas”, even with this release, still tends to feel a bit abandoned, somewhat gypped. The “Production” section of the DVD gives good viewing with an early presentation reel made up of storyboards to show the executives what’s going on with the movie so far. And the “Production Progression”, showing the different parts of animation by way of an individual scene, is always fun to watch. The “Design” section also contributes some worth with plenty of still galleries for all the major characters and even some minor ones. Those are always good. “Deleted Scenes” are in here too, and with the storyboards and voices, it feels more like a real scene than most of what’s dumped out of a movie, only to end up on the DVD. Where’s the mentally tangible goods?
Within the course of disc two, we’re treated to bits and small chunks of footage of the music being recorded for the film, as well as the voice actors doing what their paycheck implores them to do. Why not more? The “Music” section would fare better had it not had the over-praise common with many releases nowadays, in its spare piece on the making of some of the music. Over-praise is where the actors and other talents feel the need to constantly compliment everyone they worked with, either out of genuine appreciation or some kind of hidden apology, or a way to show that in this production, everyone was all smiles, even though the cattle prod was turned up to its highest level and many were left writhing on the ground in pure agony while the director laughed maniacally. Not true for this production, but it should be learned that if you have something nice to say, call the person’s answering machine. There’s clips here otherwise that may very well remain unused. Where’s the rest of these song recordings? The “Aladdin” platinum edition release found it good enough to feature one recording of “A Whole New World” between Brad Kane and Lea Salonga, without interruption. Animation has always been a process where every single element makes an important contribution. It should have been seen here.
Finishing off this disc is “The Release” section, which looks at a very, very big Central Park premiere, two trailers, a multi-language reel in seventeen languages and a gallery of posters and the absolute worst kind of model: Pocahontas in a Harper’s Bazaar spread modeling different outfits. What a horrid notion.
This set is mostly a lightweight one. “Pocahontas” is a fine production, but beyond some extra features that fail, this feels like a set that goes from one point to another and then another without much feeling. Passion is what was needed here. If this is the only new DVD release “Pocahontas” is to get, then something more should have been spared, like really getting into the grit of one of these productions. More music work, more animation production, the possibilities would have definitely worked.