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Pocahontas's whole new video world

By Jeffrey Gantz

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  The success -- commercial if not artistic -- of the big-screen sequel is a lure that Disney's animation department has resisted so far. But the studio hasn't been above releasing the odd home-video follow-up -- the further adventures of Aladdin's Jafar, or Beauty and the Beast celebrating Christmas. They're never as good as the originals, of course: the storyline is simpler (usually in a moralistic way), and the big-name voices aren't always back. Still, even second-tier Disney is often better than what turns up at the cineplex.

Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World follows our heroine to England as she pleads for her people against the lies and schemes of the evil Governor Ratcliffe, who's still lusting after the Native Americans' nonexistent gold. Pocahontas is mourning John Smith (reported dead back in London after Ratcliffe charged him with treason), but the sea voyage brings new romantic complications as she begins to be attracted to her escort, John Rolfe. She's astonished by London (this must be the first film ever to consider Europe from a Native American's point of view) but dismayed to find that King James I is a vain simpleton under the thumb of Ratcliffe.

Nonetheless, she can save her people if she makes a good impression at the Hunt Ball, and in a Pygmalion-like sequence John Rolfe and his servant Mrs. Jenkins get her dolled up and teach her to dance. She's an Eliza Doolittle success until the "entertainment" (arranged by Ratcliffe), which turns out to be bear baiting: naturally Pocahontas objects, and naturally she's tossed into the Tower of London as a savage. Just when all seems lost, John Smith shows up -- we knew he wasn't really dead -- and teams with Rolfe to rescue Pocahontas. After some soul searching about who she is, Pocahontas returns to the palace and persuades the king to listen, after which there's an exciting shipboard battle (Ratcliffe's "armada" is about to sail), good triumphs over evil, and Pocahontas has to choose between her two suitors.

Like the 1995 original, Pocahontas II sticks reasonably close to history: Pocahontas did go to London, in 1616; she was received as a princess, and she may have found John Smith there. What's different is that, in real life, she had already married John Rolfe, back in Jamestown in 1614. Disney also doesn't mention her conversion to Christianity (it would scarcely fit in a movie dedicated to Native American values), or her death at the beginning of the voyage home.

The good news is that most of the big-screen cast is back: Irene Bedard as Pocahontas, David Ogden Stiers as Ratcliffe, Russell Means as Powhatan, Michelle St. John as Nakoma. The bad news is that the Gibson here is not Mel but Donal, Mel's younger brother, as a (necessarily) less engaging and sympathetic John Smith. The new songs -- more self-realization stuff like "Where Do I Go from Here?" -- barely register, and the animation is patchy: moments of great complexity (Pocahontas's face, anger mixed with respect and a hint of sex, when Rolfe rescues her from a boorish ship's captain) alternate with awkward movement and static backgrounds right out of the Saturday-morning cartoon line-up.

But as the stiff, shy, rising-to-the-occasion John Rolfe, Billy Zane makes the most of his chance to be a good guy, and Jean Stapleton as a touching, soft-hearted Mrs. Jenkins also helps to redeem the film's jaundiced view of white people. Meeko, Percy, and Flit (the raccoon, the dog, and the hummingbird) are back; Pocahontas tries to leave them at home but of course they stow away and get into more mischief than ever. Further comic relief is provided by Uti, the giant Native American whom Powhatan sends to look after Pocahontas -- when a footman tells him he can't enter the Hunt Ball without a jacket, he simply "borrows" the footman's. There's even a happy ending for the bear.

Pocahontas II won't be memorable for its story, or its characterization, or its dialogue -- but there are images that will stay with you. Pocahontas's village in the snow, and her people stepping out from behind birch trees to bid her goodbye. A misty London bereft of landmarks (only the Tower and Westminster Abbey would be familiar) yet full of trees and gardens. Pocahontas framed against a huge Union Jack just before Ratcliffe slashes it to pieces. Most of all, the way the wind blows the leaves about Pocahontas, the way it swirls through her hair -- at one point it even seems to flow through John Rolfe. The details may be weak in this sequel, but the Great Spirit is still strong.

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