One of Disney’s weakest efforts or a misunderstood gem? Michael Mackenzie has reviewed the recent R1 10th Anniversary Edition of Pocahontas, which boasts a new digital transfer and a new extended scene, courtesy of Loaded247.
Pocahontas was put into production at the same time as The Lion King, and throughout most of its development was considered to be Disney’s “A” picture, with much of the studio’s key talent opting to work on it rather than was was seen as a doomed attempt to blend Bambi with Hamlet. Fate, it would seem, however, is not without a sense of irony, for The Lion King went on to break box office records and met with critical acclaim while the reaction to Pocahontas was decidedly muted, destined to be forever remembered as Jeffrey Katzenberg’s misguided Oscar-grabber.
Ever since Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture in 1991 (the first time an animated feature was bestowed this honour, and probably the last too, since the Best Animated Feature category seems to have put paid to any prospect of animation being able to compete on equal ground with live action), many feel that Katzenberg, then head of Walt Disney Feature Animation and now of DreakWorks, has continued to play the Academy Award-chasing game with the animated features under his command. A common trait imbues all these productions, from his work at Disney to the pompous Prince of Egypt to the dull Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron: an ever-increasing attempt to mimic live action, coming so close to copying reality that the line between the two mediums is blurred. Walt Disney’s philosophy was to caricature life and create an illusion of reality (a quality shared by all his best films); he was never afraid to embrace make-believe. Katzenberg, however, seems only to have been interested in “playing with the big boys” and Pocahontas, which is the closest of all the Disney animated features to the DreamWorks house style, is an unfortunate casualty of his quest for the golden statue.
(Please note that I harbour no ill feelings towards Mr. Katzenberg. For all his failings, he at least has more vision than his successors, the incompetent Tom Schumacher and the moronic David Stainton. The day Disney management appoints an actual artist to run their animation department instead of a money man or failed theatre producer will be a happy day indeed… and, incidentally, will probably coincide with Hell freezing over.)
The source material is pretty rich if you think about it: an actual historical figure and one about whom very little material has been written. Disney, as usual, takes several liberties with regard to plot, and the changes made have been thoroughly documented elsewhere so I won’t bore you with them here. (It should be noted, though, that for all the studio’s attempts to curry favour with Native Americans, the modification of a story that they apparently hold extremely dear cannot have gone down particularly well.) In this version, the villainous Governor Ratcliffe arrives in the New World with his trusty crew, whose numbers include the idealistic Captain John Smith. While Ratcliffe and his men are busy plotting how to “kill Indians” and discover the gold that is supposedly buried beneath the earth, Smith begins a secret relationship with Pocahontas, one of the natives and daughter of the chief of her tribe. Naturally, the course of true love never did run smoothly, and Pocahontas and Smith soon find themselves trapped in the middle of a bitter conflict between two different cultures.
The criminal mistake made here is the overall blandness of the film and its characters. Apart from the aforementioned attempts to mimic live action, which gives the characters a bland, stilted quality, it is clear that all those involved were treading extremely carefully in an attempt to avoid upsetting anyone’s sensibilities. The genocide of the Native American people is something that Americans generally prefer not to talk about, so Disney should be commended for having the guts to confront this story head-on. However, this attempt to be politically correct has the result of reducing the natives to fossils who can do no wrong while presenting the invading Brits as brainless villains bent on destruction. Subtlety was never Disney’s strong point, but here the various messages of “respect the earth”, “follow your destiny” and “treat everyone equally” are so preachy as to be insulting. It certainly does not help that the imagery is utterly ham-fisted, a perfect example being a scene in which Pocahontas’ decision to follow a more dangerous but more honest path in her life is represented by her choosing a dark, twisting fork in a river over a bright, straight one.
The po-faced nature extends to the visual design, specifically that of the characters who, for the most part, are painfully close to real life. I tend to be of the opinion that, if you want to use animation, you should have a reason for picking that particular medium over live action. It is for that reason that I find animated sitcoms like King of the Hill, which could so easily have been filmed in live action (and looked considerably less ugly as a result), absolutely deplorable, as they push an overly conservative form of animation that takes absolutely no advantage of the unique abilities for caricature and exaggerated action offered by the medium. Here, Glen Keane’s animation of Pocahontas is masterful but painfully clinical. I still think that Keane was miscast as the lead on a fundamentally realistic woman, since he has always seemed to thrive the most with more grotesque characters, from the Beast in Beauty and the Beast to John Silver in Treasure Planet. In this respect, one of his female-oriented colleagues like Ken Duncan or Mark Henn would have been more appropriate. John Smith was animated by John Pomeroy, one of the infamous group that defected with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman in 1979, who was rehired by Disney specifically for the purpose of animating this character. Aping realism is one of the biggest problems with Bluth’s later films, so it would seem that Pomeroy was well-cast for this role. The animation of Smith has a rather painstaking quality to it, often looking as if it as rotoscoped (the process of tracing over live action video reference), despite the fact that, as far as I can gather, it was all animated by hand.
It is ironic, therefore, that in many other respects the film is a visual wonder. Specifically, Rasoul Azadani’s layouts show a spectacular sense of scale, and the colour scheme, courtesy of art director Mike Giaimo, demonstrates a level of maturity not usually seen in Disney’s work. A highly stylized musical sequence towards the climax is also a veritable feast for the eyes, and suggests how good the film could have looked had Disney chosen to go for a less realistic approach throughout. The famous Colors of the Wind scene, too, is quite beautiful in its execution, and in many ways is the only truly imaginative sequence in the entire movie. Additionally, many of the secondary characters have a cartoonish quality that separates them from Pocahontas, Smith and the natives. In particular, Pocahontas’ two animal companions, Flit the hummingbird and Meeko the raccoon, feel as if they belong in a different movie, evoking the cuteness factor of more traditional Disney efforts like The Little Mermaid. Had this approach been used for the film as a whole, I feel that it would have been substantially better overall, but given the serious context of the rest of the piece, the cartoony characters seem extremely misplaced.
Pocahontas represented a turning-point for the Disney studio: a move away from the innocence of the early 90s and an attempt to do battle with live action. While it would be unfair to point to a single factor as being responsible for the tragic death of traditional feature animation, it should certainly be pointed out that, sandwiched between the massively popular behemoth The Lion King and Toy Story (the first feature-length CG film), Pocahontas was probably doomed from the start. Nevertheless, its box office takings, while not on the same level as these two films, were certainly respectable, and ultimately the movie is simply not very good. This is not merely a case of being too ambitious – The Lion King, after all, was just as grand in scope, if not more so – but rather the situation of a flawed concept being pushed through production despite its problems.
The problem with Disney’s transfers is that they’re so damn unreliable. For every great presentation, they have at least one not-so-good one. Luckily, Pocahontas falls into the former category, with a rather nice digital 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer that thoroughly trumps the old grainy, blown-out, mosquito noise-ridden release that came out under the Gold Collection back when Disney was first getting into the DVD business. The colour reproduction is excellent, presenting Mike Giaimo’s excellent art direction in all its glory. Likewise, there are no obvious compression artefacts, and the digital banding that plagues so many digital animation transfers does not seem to be present here. The level of detail is very good too, for the most part, although there are a few slight lapses into softness. There is some edge enhancement, which is visible on some of the higher contrast edges, but it is nothing like as bad as in Disney’s worst efforts (e.g. Brother Bear, Kill Bill Volume 1). Overall, a most satisfying presentation.
The primary audio option is an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track. This is an extremely forward-focused mix, with little in the way of surround activity, but the clarity is excellent and there are no problems with drop-outs or distortion of any kind. French and Spanish 5.1 dubs are also provided, as well as English subtitles for the film itself, but sadly not for any of the extras.
The initial R1 DVD release of Pocahontas was on a single disc and featured little in the way of bonus materials – two music videos, a trailer, a trivia game and a “DVD storybook”. The European releases, however, fared better, porting over a number of features from the deluxe LaserDisc release, including the 30-minute The Making of Pocahontas featurette, a storyboard to film comparison, deleted scenes, and a handful of other featurettes focusing on character design and music. In comparison with the previous R1 release, therefore, this new 2-disc edition is a massive improvement. When you compare it to the R2 editions, however, it looks somewhat less impressive. The first disc even uses substantially the same menus as the previous release.
It should be noted that two versions of the film are featured: the original (which must be accessed from the Setup menu), and a new version that integrates a musical number cut from the film when it was originally released. It takes the form of a love song between Pocahontas and Smith following Smith’s capture by the natives, and it was cut for good reason: it’s clumsy, badly-placed and bogs then narrative down. However, I won’t begrudge Disney the right to include this wholly pointless addition, given that the original can still be viewed in a much more seamless manner than that of The Lion King (which featured a noticeable pause when skipping over the added scene when watching the “original” version). The integration is pretty good, but in a number of shots it is fairly clear that the footage was not created at the same time as the original material: the line style is slightly different, and the characters tend to look slightly less angular. This deleted song was actually presented on the LaserDisc and original R2 release in a combination of completed footage and rough animation, and in fact even aired on ABC in 1997, integrated into the film in this state. The promise of “Never-Before-Seen Animation” on the front cover of this release, therefore, is not strictly speaking true.
Disc 1 features a number of extras produced specially for this release. Of particular note is a brand new Audio Commentary. Featuring producer James Pentecost and directors Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, this is a reasonable track, although it suffers from some lapses, due mainly to what seems to be apathy on the part of the speakers. Even the usually jolly Goldberg sounds a bit fed up at times, and sometimes the trio seem to be struggling to come up with anything to say. At times I got the impression that they were making a real effort to restrain themselves from launching into a full-on attack on the management responsible for bungling much of the film, since a lot of discussions regarding changes made to the film from its initial inception run along the lines of “the executives hated it”. The track does, however, feature an amusingly snide comment from Goldberg when, after it is stated that the film was released in 1995, interjects, “Yeah, and we were released in 1996.”
The rest of the extras on this disc, however, are comprised mainly of music videos the usual mind-numbing kids’ games that Disney loves to indulge in. Good luck getting any satisfaction out of Disney’s Art Project and the “Follow Your Heart” game – I was certainly at a loss. Also included are two Sing Along Songs (essentially playing the relevant scenes from the movie with on-screen lyrics – the quality is pretty awful too), a music video for Vanessa Williams’ rendition of “Colors of the Wind”, and a “sneak peek” for the horrible-looking direct-to-video cheapquel Tarzan II. Certain readers have expressed dissatisfaction about my constant berating of these cheap, nasty knock-offs, so I won’t go into any more detail about that particular travesty.
Like the special editions of The Lion King and Mulan, the extras on the second disc are quite bitty in nature, but there are a number of interesting materials here to peruse. This disc is split into six sections: The Making of Pocahontas, Production, Design, Music, Deleted Scenes and The Release.
The Making of Pocahontas is a pretty good half-hour overview of the film’s production. Narrated by Irene Bedard, the speaking voice of Pocahontas, it was produced at the same time as the film itself and thus serves as a rather interesting historical document. In comparison with the commentary, recorded a good eight years after the fact, the various crew members interviewed here are bright-eyed and enthusiastic about what they clearly believe to be a truly special film. The footage accompanying Bedard’s narration, filmed in some sort of Native American nature reserve, has a rather cheesy quality to it, but the interviews with the various artists are well worth watching.
The Production section begins with an Early Presentation Reel, which features various pieces of concept art set to an early version of the “Colors of the Wind” song. The Storyboard-to-Film Comparison from the previous R2 release also shows up, along with a Production Progression showing various stages of the making of the film: storyboard, rough animation, clean-up animation, and final colour. The scene in question is sadly quite brief, but being able to view the footage in these various stages is definitely interesting.
Design includes a number of galleries featuring various conceptual designs of different characters, as well as examples of layouts and background paintings. A number of the sections are also accompanied by interviews with the supervising animators for the character in question, and/or pencil test footage. The most insightful by far is a 4-minute piece featuring Glen Keane explaining to an audience the differences between Pocahontas and a more traditional Disney princess like Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Also included is a gallery for the deleted character Redfeather, a large rooster who was to have been voiced by the late John Candy. Had the character remained in the film, it would have been his last role in a movie.
Music features a 7-minute featurette entitled The Music of Pocahontas, which explains the process of writing the various songs that appear in the film, and the collaboration between composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Also included is a thoroughly cheesy music video for “If I Never Knew You”, and just in case you couldn’t get anough of it, a making-of featurette for the video.
Eight Deleted Scenes are also included, as well as a reel of miscellaneous scenes. These range from storyboard sketches to rough animation to completed footage, and many of them show glimpses of a more light-hearted approach to the storyline.
Finally, The Release showcases two original Theatrical Trailers, one of which features “Colors of the Wind” in its entirety, as well as footage of the Premiere in Central Park (featuring an interview with former mayor Rudolph Giuliani), a Multi-Language Reel for “Colors of the Wind”, and a Publicity Gallery showing various poster designs and other marketing images.
I have met very few people who actually like Pocahontas; however, it is an interesting failure, and Disney fans will definitely want to pick this 2-set up so they can see just what happens when the studio attempts to accomplish the very antithesis of what Walt Disney stood for.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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