In the early ‘90s Disney reigned supreme over the world of animation. After the back to back successes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King it truly seemed the animation powerhouse could do no wrong. Unfortunately with the presentation of Pocahontas, Disney started a downward slump from which they’ve never quite recovered.
The big risk for Disney’s Pocahontas was that it was the first animated tale from Disney to be partially based in reality, using factual characters and shrouded historical events as the basis for its story. The lack of success for the picture probably explains why it remains Disney’s only fact based film. So here’s the secret to enjoying Pocahontas: forget all about history, and consider this to be just another one of Disney’s princess tales; a Romeo and Juliet style story about a forbidden love between an indian princess and an adventurer that managed to break the barriers between their worlds. The fact that the indian princess and adventurer bear the same names as people in our history books just happens to be a happy coincidence, but that’s where the coincidence ends.
As in all the best Disney animated tales, our heroine is a beautiful figure who is unhappy with how mundane life is. The indian chieftain’s daughter Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard) is looking for where her path in life is leading her. As fate would have it, while Pocahontas is looking “just around the river bend” a boat of english settlers arrives to settle the new world, protected by the adventurous John Smith (Mel Gibson) and the villainous Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers). Ratcliffe immediately has the men digging for gold, while Smith explores the land. When his path crosses with Pocahontas’s he begins to learn the true value of the land around him, and despite the historic... er, fictional heated relations between the settlers and the indians a romance begins to blossom between Pocahontas and John Smith.
I’m usually a complete sucker for Disney flicks. There’s just something magical in the way the animation and the music combine to tell a beautiful story. It’s almost guaranteed that no matter what the movie is, as its signature song comes into play, you’ll find a tear or two escaping me. Pocahontas is no different and no matter how far fetched the fact based story might get, by the time Pocahontas sings about understanding the true value of the earth in “Colors of the Wind” I’ve been sucked into that Disney spirit yet again.
But Pocahontas is a flawed film, partly because Mel Gibson’s voice is so overt a case of stunt-casting he just doesn’t fit in the movie and partly because other than “Colors of the Wind”, the songs aren’t as memorable as I usually expect from Disney. Mostly though, it’s flawed because it is nearly impossible to do what I suggested earlier - forget that these are supposedly based on real people and pretend it’s another Disney fairy tale. Years and years of history lessons come out of hiding while watching the movie, and beat viscously at the concepts of “suspension of disbelief” and “dramatic license”, fueled by the very mature presentation of Pocahontas dancing around with a easily-merchandizable raccoon and hummingbird. (Pocahontas was actually a young girl when John Smith landed in Virginia and it’s doubtful she danced with a raccoon without getting rabies or skinning it for her next dress). As both the romance between the two lovers and the tension between the two peoples grow, the film outgrows any sort of fantasy of being historically based, leaving future generations to scoff at history teachers who obviously don’t know what they’re talking about and need to watch Pocahontas as a point of reference.
Still, for all of those downfalls, Pocahontas is an enjoyable film, it’s just not top caliber Disney-fare. If there’s no Aladdin, Lion King, Snow White or Cinderella to be found, then Pocahontas will serve as a quick fix for a Disney addict, just be prepared to play “Colors of the Wind” a couple of times to help stave off any withdrawal symptoms from the lack of quality the rest of the movie provides.
I’m going to get a little more technical in this part then I typically do, so if you want to skip ahead a paragraph or two, feel free. This technical stuff is somewhat important to the review of this disc though, as it describes a major downfall of the release.
Most people have their DVD players connected through a single cable composite connection, typically found as three cables - one for video, two for audio (left and right). Newer equipment, especially that found in home theaters are starting to connect through a three cable component video connection (a total of five connections - three for video, two for audio). Component video is supposed to be a higher quality connection, simply because all of the information from the video signal isn’t being crammed down one cable - it’s broken out a little bit more, allowing that information to be carried better. However, when viewed through a component connection, Pocahontas looks terrible.
I don’t mean the movie looks bad, I mean it looks terrible. Almost all of the characters are affected in some way. Governor Ratcliffe’s purple outfit is surrounded by jagged edges, and the expected higher detail is lost as the colors smudge around any black detail lines. Because of the way the indians are drawn, they come across as being done by someone who couldn’t color inside the lines. It all looks very sloppy. What’s odd is by switching down to the lower quality composite connection, the image looks fine. No more jaggies, no more smudged colors, no real problems at all. It’s almost as if Disney designed the DVD to be viewed through the lower quality connection. It’s not a problem I’ve had before, so it’s definitely worth mentioning.
Pocahontas has been available before as a single disc release. This edition marks the film’s tenth anniversary and gives you everything you expect from a Disney DVD release - one disc dedicated to the film itself, one disc full of extras. The extras range from a vintage making-of documentary to games and a couple of rainy day craft activities. At this point it’s like Disney has a cookie cutter mold for all of their DVDs. They’re higher quality DVD releases with lots of extras, but they tend to be the same from movie to movie - comparing rough sketches of a scene with the final product, director commentaries on making the film, that sort of thing. What sets Pocahontas above some of the other releases is the deleted song “If I Never Knew You”.
Most of the Disney 2-disc animated releases also see a song added back that was originally cut. For some of the movies, like this one, it’s inserted back into the film (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) and for others it’s just included because to add it back in would change the film too much (Aladdin). None of those songs impact the movie as much as Pocahontas’s deleted song. The musical themes from “If I Never Knew You” are already woven throughout the film, but without any sort of lyrics to bring them to the foreground. Adding the song in not only makes those themes more noticeable and, quite frankly, poignant, but it also adds a moment that solidifies Pocahontas and John Smith’s relationship. In what should be a scene of sorrow it adds another heartfelt moment into the movie, something emotional that was dearly missing before. Having seen the movie and heard the song, I doubt I’ll ever watch Pocahontas as it was theatrically released ever again. This song belongs in the movie, and the film’s producers did themselves a huge disservice by ever removing it.
Of course there are pop video versions of both “Colors of the Wind” and “If I Never Knew You” included on the DVD, thankfully both from the time of Pocahontas’s original release. We are spared a Lindsay Lohan/Hillary Duff modern day duet of either song, something thankfully omitted from this DVD release that Disney tends to tack onto most of their animated films. I couldn’t care less though. As usual with these pop-remakes, I prefer the film versions with Judy Kuhn’s fabulous vocal work over any attempt to catch a top-40s hit.
Despite its technical issues, Pocahontas’s 10th Anniversary Edition is the only way to watch this film on DVD. If you have the single disc version ditch it in favor of this one. If you don’t... you probably can settle for renting this one from time to time. Even with its added song, Pocahontas doesn’t live up to the Disney name, although “If I Never Knew You” certainly brings it closer.