In 10 Words or Less
Disney's first "true" animated film gets the special-edition treatment
Pocahontas is probably the animated Disney film least likely to appeal to children. Whether it's the dearth of talking toasters or the lack of a happy fairy-tale ending, the movie isn't child-friendly, but at the same time, the story doesn't come close to the magic of a Pixar film. Fortunately for the film, the art is the saving grace that makes it worth watching.
The first Disney animated feature based on a character that actually lived and breathed, Pocahontas mixes the history of the Indian girl and the lore about her that has grown over time, along with some tweaks to build a romance and a couple of animal friends for comic relief. Unlike most of the Mouse House productions, the story of Pocahontas demands the inclusion of some serious real-life themes, including mortality. Because of this, the movie moves a bit slower than the average Disney film and can't rely on anthropomorphic animals to carry the show. This is a story about real people with real concerns that can't simply be used as a skeleton for a movie about a hummingbird, a raccoon and a pug dog.
That's not to say that this is an animated history class. Between moments about the colonial assaults of the British and the clash of cultures in the New World, Pocohontas' critter companions get plenty of screen time in order to keep younger viewers interested. But for the most part, the characters on-screen are human, something Pixar waited six films to do. It's also the rare "kid's" movie where people actually die, though even that's been softened by the lack of wounds.
Created by the acclaimed team of Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz, the songs are perhaps a shade below the truly great Disney soundtracks, but they came through with a few gems in "Just Around the River Bend" and the well-known "Colors of the Wind." 10 years after the film's release, "Colors of the Wind" is probably better remembered than the film itself, thanks to a version by Vanessa Williams. The songs as a whole have the feel of a Broadway musical, helped by B'Way vet Judy Kuhn's voice, and each has some storytelling heft thanks to the level of quality.
Similarly good is the voice cast, though John Smith (Mel Gibson) could work on his accent a bit. Irene Bedard (dialogue) and Kuhn (songs) combine to give the film's heroine a strong voice that fits the character, while David Ogden Stiers ("M.A.S.H") gets the thankless job of giving life to Ratcliffe, the main "villain." Ratcliffe is something of a retread of Gaston from "Beauty and the Beast," toned down to be merely a blowhard overwhelmed by greed. Because he doesn't have the sense of true evil that the great bad guys have, the film suffers from a lack of focus in the conflict.
The imagery used to create Pocahontas' world is easily the best part of the movie, from the beauty of the New World to the dramatic power of the "Savages" scenes. The use of color and camera positioning raise the energy of this section of the film in a way that would have been difficult for any other film element. Though hand-drawn animation has struggled for popularity in recent years, thanks in large part to the awful stories it is used to tell, if an excellent story was told with the artistry of this film, it would make for an amazing film.
This new DVD presents two cuts of the film, though there's really only one scene that separates the two versions. "If I Never Knew You," A song sung by Smith and Pocahontas while he is held prisoners by the natives, was previously only heard in a version by Jon Secada and Shanice during the end credits, because it was thought that test audiences (read: kids) found it to be boring. In the new cut, it is seamlessly reinserted, and actually helps the continuity and brings increased meaning to the story, though the flow of the film is admittedly slowed. There's no real reason to watch the theatrical cut, since this new cut was the original cut, and was chopped only to satisfy younger audiences.
As is the style of recent Disney special-edition DVDs, this release of Pocahontas is packed in a single-width keepcase with a tray for the second platter, wrapped in a cardboard slipcover. Inside, there's a two-sided insert that lists the chapter stops and a set map, along with the usual coupons and promos. The first disc features an animated main menu, with options to watch the film, select scenes, view bonus features, set up the languages and view trailers, while the second disc features mildly animated concept art that lists the bulk of the set's bonus materials. Scene selection menus include still previews and titles for each scene. The film is captioned in English, while both versions of the movie feature English, French and Spanish 5.1 soundtracks. Also included is THX optimizer application for setting up your display.
In comparison to the first release in Disney's Gold Collection, this disc's video is a tremendous improvement. The first disc's letterboxed transfer was soft and disappointing. This time out, it's an anamorphic widescreen transfer, and it's absolutely gorgeous. The color is vibrant and the level of detail is astounding. Watching the scenes with Grandmother Willow provides a perfect example of how good this disc is. There are only slight problems with ringing on the edges of light objects against darker backgrounds. Considering how awful some of the footage looks in the bonus features (see The Extras), the near-complete lack of grain, dirt or damage is fantastic. This stands up to comparison with the best animated transfers available.
The audio is presented in Dolby 5.1, with a good amount of activity in the surrounds. The mix of score, song and dialogue is very nice, keeping each element well defined and crystal clear. There's some use of ambient sound, including well-designed rain effects, to create atmosphere, a technique that works very well. Overall, the sound, though not too improved over the Gold Collection release, is an impressive and effective aspect of the film.
Note: This information on the quality relates to both the original theatrical cut and the new 10th Anniversary version.
A selection of extras is included on the first disc, including an unadvertised feature-length audio commentary, with producer James Pentecost and directors Eric Goldberg and Mike Gabriel. The trio hit the mics armed with a tremendous arsenal of information, and rarely are caught without something to say. Most of the track is focused on the making of the film, and their thoughts on the finished product, but the moments where they answer criticism of the film are some of the most intriguing parts. The commentary only plays over the new 10th Anniversary cut, allowing the participants to talk about the Smith/Pocahontas duet that is reintroduced.
Aside from the commentary, the bonus features are mainly for kids, starting with Disney's Art Project, which show how to make a dreamcatcher and a drum from household items. Though produced in a kid-friendly style, the projects move way too fast for children to follow along, and don't go into much detail in terms of what they need to do. A simple set-top game, "Follow Your Heart" should be fun for a kid for a while, and they might get a kick out of the two sing-along Karaoke-style music videos.
For adults, the Vanessa Williams music video for "Colors of the Wind" returns from the Gold Collection DVD, with a promotional featurette on the direct-to-DVD Tarzan II, which looks behind the scenes, at the contributions of Phil Collins. There are also nine previews for other animated offerings, which are available from the main menu in a play-all option, or one at a time.
Disc Two kicks off with a 28-minute Disney-produced featurette on the production of the film, appropriately titled "The Making of Pocahontas" Hosted by Bedard, the voice of Pocahontas, this slick piece of corporate fluff is a well-produced look at the cast and crew's efforts. Broken down into several chapters, there's a definite "Isn't this great" feel, but would you really expect Disney to deal in controversy?
The rest of the extras are separated into five groups, starting with "Production." Pentecost returns for an on-screen introduction to an early production reel, used to show Disney higher-ups what they were planning to do with the movie. Set to "Colors of the Wind," and provided with an optional audio commentary about a shaman brought in to consult, the reel is made up of a well-edited montage of concept and production art. Though rough in quality, these images show the creativity that informed this film's production.
Goldberg gets to host a Storyboard to Animation comparison that features amazingly gorgeous charcoal drawings from artist Glen Keane. Optional audio commentary explains the motivation behind the art. He also offers an intro for the Production Progression featurette. Using the angle key on the remote, the scene of Pocahontas diving off the cliff can be viewed in the storyreel, rough animation, clean-up animation or final color stages. The changes are smooth and give a good idea of how an animated film moves from storyboards to the screen.
The "Design" section might be the most in-depth part of the DVD, with background on the design of 11 main characters; one deleted character, a turkey named Redfeather; and the sets and backgrounds. For each character or concept, a combination of a video interview with the creator, test animation and/or still images is presented. Most of the material is culled from previously produced footage, with the creation of Pocahontas segment being the most entertaining. Keane draws The Little Mermaid's Ariel and Pocahontas in front of a live audiences, explaining the challenges in designing an Indian character versus the traditional Caucasian heroines, drawing some laughs with his easygoing style.
The amount of material in this section is incredible, with pages of material numbering in the high hundreds. The stills are presented in a user-controlled gallery format, and have actually had some thought involved in their presentation. The set design stills illustrate the various layers in animation, by building a scene layer by layer. Any fan of animation will find this material fascinating, especially the wide variety of designs considered for Pocahontas, ranging from sexy to child-like, to one of a young girl smoking a peace pipe.
Disney's backbone, the musical animated film, is discussed in "Music," which takes a look at how the songs of Pocahontas were developed. The section begins with "The Music of Pocahontas," a seven-minute featurette focusing on the musical team of Menken and Schwartz. In addition to interviews with the duo and footage of them in the studio, the segment takes a look at Kuhn in the recording booth, which, after watching the film and connecting the image of Pocahontas with her voice, is a bit odd.
Another music video is included here, this time the end-credit version of "If I Never Knew You," with Jon Secada and Shanice. The video is a cliché movie soundtrack tie-in, but the song is an excellent version. It's followed by "The Making of 'If I Never Knew You'", a short featurette on the creation of the song, how it was cut from the film, and its return on the DVD. Everyone from Menken to Roy Disney talk about the decision that was made, and the work that went into it, expressing regret about the move.
"Deleted Scenes" is just that, nine deleted scenes (or sets of scenes) that are presented as animatics or animated storyboards with sound and voices (with the exception of the miscellaneous section, which includes some completed animation.) Many of these are alternate or extended versions of the scenes in the film, and to see them in these preliminary stages is interesting, but two are deleted songs, one a deleted introduction of Pocahontas and the other a song that was cut to make room for "If I Never Knew You." These two are presented with optional audio commentary, which serves as an introduction and explanation.
In "The Release", two theatrical trailers are available to check out. The quality of the video belies their age, but they are still effective in terms to promotion, including one that includes the entirety of the "Colors of the Wind" scene.
"The Premiere in Central Park" is a short look at the extensive efforts that went into the massive premiere for Pocahontas that was held in New York's Central Park in 1995. Made at the time of the event, it's an in-the-moment record, but one that captures the time, including a mention of the World Trade Center. For anyone too young to remember, it's quite an impressive piece of footage to see such an event come together.
When the Multi-language Reel started, I thought, Isn't it time to stop these repetitive features? But then watching and listening to "Colors of the Wind" in several languages, it is interesting to see how the producers were able to find so many voices capable of mimicking Kuhn. The section ends with a user-controlled Publicity Gallery of 18 posters and ads, including a unique fashion "shoot" done with Pocahontas for Harper's Bazaar.
In a nice touch, when an extra is highlighted, the running time, if applicable, is shown.
The Bottom Line
Pocahontas is as beautiful a hand-drawn animated film as has been seen in the past 10 years, but beyond the look of the art, the story is a bit simplistic, without the interesting supporting cast that marks more impressive Disney films. It's also the most adult of the modern Disney canon, with the possible exception of The Lion King. The DVD presentation seems a bit light looking at the box, but there's quite a bit of interesting material here, which should satisfy kids and adults alike, and the quality of the audio and video is beautiful. Fans of this film or beautiful animation should purchase without worry, but anyone looking for a digital babysitter should look elsewhere.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.