Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs and various misadventures relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
I was 8 years old when Pocahontas was released in 1995 and I can still remember the conversations at the time regarding the historical accuracy of the real-life titular Disney princess. Beyond those issues, though, the film was flagged for its portrayal of Native Americans as magically attuned figures.
Pocahontas II can be seen as a slight course correction for Disney, a way to continue working within the constraints of non-fiction while still putting the patented Disney spin on the story. Indeed, the original film ends before the most notable events of Pocahontas’s life occurs.
What’s going on here?
It would have made things incredibly difficult for the folks at Disney to accurately portray the circumstances that led to Pocahontas traveling to England — a kidnapping, Christian conversion and marriage to John Rolfe at 16. So the best course of action is to have her leave Jamestown of her own free will as part of a peace treaty. Tagging along on their journey, but contributing absolutely nothing to the plot whatsoever, are her various pet sidekicks — a raccoon, a hummingbird and a pug — because, at the end of the day, merchandise must be sold.
The bulk of the plot concerns John Rolfe and Pocahontas’s attempts to appeal to King James in order to put a stop to the impending British invasion. Standing in their way is Governor Ratcliffe, who opens the film killing John Smith and still harboring an intense hatred for Native Americans. This subplot also includes a sub-subplot involving a magician / shaman / voodoo priest that goes absolutely nowhere.
Disney is smart enough to keep a film like this from being boring, but the entire affair just lacks the patented Disney magic and ultimately feels like a lifeless imitation of a theatrical Disney film.
How much of the original is preserved?
Pocahontas, while still a beloved classic Disney film, was a bit of a disappointment, especially when compared to The Lion King, another recent Disney all-timer. The film grossed almost $30 million and grabbed the top spot in its opening weekend but barely beat out a follow-up weekend from the lackluster Batman Forever. Plus, 1995 saw Pixar creeping into Disney’s territory with Toy Story, and the animation world would never be the same.
As has been the case with most of these films so far, almost all of the main voice cast returns for Pocahontas II — the only exception being the absence of Mel Gibson as John Smith. Nevertheless, Disney roped in Mel’s younger brother, Donal, to replace him, which is a perfect metaphor for the entire home-release-sequel endeavor. John Kassir, Frank Welker and Danny Mann even return to “voice” Pocahontas’s animal sidekicks, which is even more impressive because none of their characters ever utters a single word.
Production notes for this film are sparse, so it’s unclear what the budget looked like for Pocahontas II. However, the animation looks great, full of bright colors and smoothly rendered. It’s amazing how much Walt Disney Television Animation had evolved just from an aesthetic standpoint in just the four years since Return of Jafar.
When it comes to characters, Pocahontas II almost forgets to give the main character any meaningful screen time. The film tries to give Pocahontas an introspective arc as she tries to stay true to herself in a foreign world, but even that feels like a stretch of an argument. Consider the climactic battle between John Rolfe and Ratcliffe, where Pocahontas essentially sits on the sidelines until it’s over. Perhaps Disney didn’t want to tarnish her image by involving her in any unsavory sequences, but by doing so, the film robs her of any agency in her own story.
Does this ruin the original film?
Having kids of my own has helped me to understand why films like Pocahontas II exist. Both of my boys have gone through phases where they want to watch anything and everything associated with Spider-Man, for example. And sometimes, when I’m desperate enough to get them off my back and get a little peace, I’ll put on just about anything related to Spider-Man, no matter the quality. I can see a similar thing happening, not just with the Pocahontas franchise but with Disney princesses in general.
That being said, kids aren’t just mindless automatons who will endlessly devour any IP that looks and smells familiar. I’m sure families were eager for more Pocahontas content when the film was still recent and just around the bend, but I can’t imagine that, after seeing Pocahontas II, that feeling lingered for very long.
- Next Time: Talking lions and tigers and bears, oh my! It’s time for the live-action The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story.