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Friday, September 28, 2012

Here's a thing that I was absolutely not expecting to happen during this tour of Disney's direct-to-video sequels: that I'd end up seeing a sequel that I preferred to the original. Also not expected: that the film to cross that threshold would be the widely-derided Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, a film that typically puts in an appearance somewhere on "Worst Disney Sequels" lists, and has been attacked with a ferocity typically reserved for the perpetrators or war crimes.

Of course, this has something to do with my feelings toward Disney's 1995 Pocahontas, best described as "cold". 10 worst Disney films ever sort of cold. If the worst that Journey to a New World was going to do was to betray entirely the principals, characters, and story of Pocahontas - and it does this very thing - I wasn't going to complain loudly.

That said, it starts the betrayals early, and lustfully. Some time after the events of the first movie in 1607 (years, months - the movie actively does not care about chronology) John Smith (Donal Gibson, the only replacement voice actor - he's stepping for big brother Mel, not the last time that Disney would play this trick) is being chased through London by a pack of the king's thugs, finally being pushed into the sea to drown by the sneering John Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers), former Jamestown governor, who had presumably been sent off to serve time for his crimes, but was able to trick King James (Jim Cummings) into believing his own version of events at the colony, persuading the monarch that the Powhatan people of the area are a real, immediate danger to the lives of the British colonists, and that Smith was an Indian-loving traitor. The latter part of which, in scrupulous observance of the facts, is in fact true, but let's not start quibbling about logic. The point being, we are immediately in a gloomy, atmospheric, nasty state, that could not be more of a vigorous "fuck you" to the first movie if it tried.

News of Smith's death reaches his former lover, Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), who we first see finally coming to terms with her grief in the snows of winter. She acts, it would seem, as the chief interlocutor between the Powhatans and the whites, helping to maintain a delicate peace that is very nearly wrecked by the arrival of John Rolfe (Billy Zane), the designated diplomat sent by James to ascertain whether or not Ratcliffe's rather overheated version of events is entirely true. Pocahontas and Rolfe spar for a while, he doubting her ability and she doubting his intelligence, until a Wacky Misunderstanding results in her becoming the Powhatan's official emissary to England, and so the headstrong, adventurous girl prepares to take a journey... to a new world.

Once there, Pocahontas immediately crosses paths with Ratcliffe, who prepares to humiliate her in front of the court; Rolfe attempts to stop this from happening, but she ends up in jail anyway, where Rolfe and a still very much alive Smith rescue her; following this, the three of them, with Pocahontas's unspeaking bodyguard Uttamatomakkin, race against time to stop Ratcliffe's armada from sailing to America, finally uncovering the villain's plot in front of the king, thus restoring Smith's name and securing peace between the races of Virginia. Which leaves only the terrible issue of who Pocahontas will stay with: her former love Smith, or her new love Rolfe, the adventurer or the stable man; Smith's desire to ever seek new frontiers makes up her mind for her, and she and Rolfe embrace as they sail back to her home.

The commonest, most fannish criticism of the movie is that Pocahontas and Smith don't end up together, and this argument can only be made by someone who has more investment in their anodyne relationship from the first movie than I ever managed; but I suppose it's fair, on the assumption that the only people apt to be interested in Pocahontas II are those with an attachment to Pocahontas. The defense, of course, is that Pocahontas, baptised as a Christian and renamed Rebecca, did marry Rolfe. This, anyway, was the best argument that I though the movie needed in its defense, before I saw it and learned that the Pocahontas/Rolfe relationship is quite possibly the only point at which Journey to a New World stumbles into historical accuracy, very probably by accident. This is a film in which John Ratcliffe, dead in Virginia in 1609, can be made so unspeakably evil as to lead a massive, though fictitious and strategically insane, military expedition against the indigenous people of North America that overlaps with the visit of Pocahontas to England in 1616, made when she was already Rebecca Rolfe, that ended, not with her return to Virginia a week or so later, but with her death while still on the English mainland a year later. In which John Smith is a fugitive from law and not an explorer seeking to expand the influence of England in the New World. In which William Shakespeare, dead in April, 1616, could be inspired by Pocahontas to write the "To be or not to be" line from Hamlet, which certainly existed by 1602. And he does this within a musical number.

At that point, they might as well have stuck Pocahontas back with Smith, and bought of the fangirls; fuck, they might as well have had Pocahontas, Smith, and Rolfe fight robot ninjas from an alternate dimension. We have moved, here, far beyond the "Disneyification" of history, right into the realm of hallucinogenic fever dream, in which history is regarded not even as an inconvenience, but a barely-comprehensible rumor.

It's at least partially for this reason, I think, that I enjoy Journey to a New World more than its predecessor: if it can't fix the problematic representations, stiff characters, or limp songs of the original, at least it can be completely batshit crazy. I have given more films a pass on the grounds of batshit crazy than a decent man would care to admit. But there you have it: by the time that Ratcliffe prepares to trap Pocahontas by singing the weirdly sinewy, minor-key "Things Are Not What They Appear", with the help of several psychotic clowns who look to be auditioning for The Dark Knight Returns, we have hit a point where I'm willing, if not to call the film "good" - for it's clearly not "good" - at least "goddamn strange in a way that is both vaguely unpleasant and also tremendously magnetic".

Pocahontas was, anyway, one of the few Disney movies so up its own ass with a sense of Serious Purpose that being thrown through a funhouse mirror could only have helped: and while there are places where that results in something unambiguously terrible - for example, all of the comic bits involving the wacky animals, Meeko the raccoon (John Kassir), Flit the hummingbird (Frank Welker), and Percy the dog (Danny Mann), are horribly strained and much too "big", killing all the animal naturalism that made them one of the best parts of the original; not to mention that, for no clear reason, Meeko keeps going off-model - for the most part it's like a version of Pocahontas that was served with story notes all mentioning that full-scale warfare and a thrilling adventure subplot would have been much more interesting than a subdued romantic drama about incompatible cultures. But, please, leave that part in place, and just graft the thriller on top of it. This works about as well as you'd expect, but damn me if it isn't more interesting.

Heck, even the songs, with writers Marty Panzer and Larry Grossman replacing the rather more A-list Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken, manage to at least equal Pocahontas, one of the least tuneful, least narratively interesting of Disney's Broadway-style musicals, the hugely over-praised "Colors of the Wind" notwithstanding. Frankly, Pocahontas's new "I Want" song, "Where Do I Go from Here?" is the best piece of music in either film: melancholy, grown-up, and Judy Kuhn, Pocahontas's singing voice, is in particularly good form. Then there are less interesting, more readily forgotten bits: "Things Are Not What They Appear", which has a good unnerving energy, but suffers from hideous rhymes, and the alleged showstopper "What a Day in London" tries to do too much, offering a chorale introduction to the city while also showcasing Pocahontas' first impressions of the Londoners and their first impressions of her, with plenty of random jokes about Uttamatomakkin's height, and a melody that is like a feebler version of a half-dozen better Disney songs. I am certain that "Wait Till He Sees You", sung by Jean Stapleton as Rolfe's comically blind housekeeper, exists; but I have otherwise forgotten everything about it.

Visually, the film doesn't embarrass itself: largely a collaboration between Disney's Tokyo and Toronto studios, with an assist from Vancouver (between this and Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, the short-lived Canadian arm of Disney's television animation division has already become my favorite), it cannot begin to compete with Pocahontas, of course, one of the four movies made by Walt Disney Feature Animation during the technical peak of its 1990s renaissance,* but there is a complexity and ambition to the imagery that is far above most theoretically "television animation" productions of that time. In fact, if the film were animated with a slightly higher framerate (certainly no more than animation "on twos", or 12 fps, compared to Disney's "on ones", or 24 fps; but a damn site better than most cheap animation, then or now), it would absolutely be theatrical-quality animation, with its clean lines that do proper homage to the heavily stylised character designs in the original; elaborate shading and layering; smart use of low-grade CGI; and some awfully nifty lighting.



Though for some reason, King James looks awful, like he and he alone was animated by some third-tier Korean studio that promised to do the job in a week for $10.

Of course, not a single word of what I've said, even though I think the film actually looks beautiful - a third thing that I had not expected to happen - obviates how intensely dumb the movie is. Children's movies, of course, are not held to be historical lessons, so the fact that Journey to a New World is filled with the most surreal cavalcade of lies is not supposed to bother us, especially because of an unbelievable disclaimer in the end credits that says, in almost exactly so many words, "This project has nothing to do with the real Pocahontas. For information on the real Pocahontas, go online". And yet, children absorb things through movies rather too easily, and you just know that somewhere, a high school student was dumbfounded that he got a failing grade on an essay proclaiming the sinking of the Spanish Armada to have been a decisive turning point in the English-Indian Wars.

Anyway, the film's history lesson is too ludicrous to view as anything but comedy; the absurdly bad character drama is more immediately problematic, with the Smith/Rolfe/Pocahontas situation resolved because, essentially, Smith decides on the spur of the moment that he's an insensitive jerk now; while Ratcliffe schemes and snarls with abandon that would embarrass a silent melodrama villain, and would be out of place in a particularly exploitative biopic of Rasputin. Things happen in this film because they are obliged to drive the plot forward, which frequently happens inelegantly - the sequence which I might best summarise as, "we'll never thwart Ratcliffe if I can't teach you how to be a proper English lady in an afternoon so that you can win the Hunt Ball" is so impossible in every regard that even a timorous musical montage can't make sense of it.

Still, the film has an energy that never flags, no matter how strained and wrong it goes; more than can be said for the original Pocahontas, which stops to declaim every ten seconds or thereabouts. Anyway, if it was good enough to inspire Terrence Malick to make The New World, it's more than good enough for me. Unfortunately, there is not, to my knowledge, any evidence that Malick has ever seen it. But we can pretend that he did, and then pretend that the raccoon in that one scene of The New World is actually Meeko, and that makes everybody oh so very happy.

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