The Disney Sequel Marathon: “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World” (1998)
I went into this film expecting to hate it. While I enjoyed the original Pocahontas — despite its problematic reliance on the “noble savage” trope and its egregious butchering of the historical record — it just seemed to me that there wasn’t enough magic in it to make it a true classic, let alone to sustain a sequel. Unfortunately that suspicion proved to be only too true. While Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World has an intriguing premise, in which Pocahontas travels to London in order to forge a peace between her people and King James, it ultimately is ham-strung by lackluster songs, a silly plot (which, somehow, involves the mercurial and petulant King James sending an armada to America to squash the Native Americans), and a John Smith B-plot thrown in.
However, since this series of short essays is intended to find the good in even the worst of Disney sequels, that’s what I’m going to do.
To begin with, the film does have a strong voice cast. Irene Bedard returns as Pocahontas, giving the young woman the same gravitas and sincerity that made her such an appealing heroine in the first film, and Judy Kuhn does the same for her singing voice (unfortunately, absolutely none of the songs are truly worthy of her skill). Billy Zane has an incredibly sexy and slightly debonair voice, which makes him the perfect choice for John Rolfe, who is much more dignified, and noble, than John Smith, while the immortal Jean Stapleton provides the voice of his housekeeper, Mrs. Jenkins. And, and course, the late David Ogden Stiers steals the show with his Governor Ratcliffe, a man who relishes his cruelty.
For my part, I would have liked to see more of Ratcliffe. Though he may not be in the top tier of Disney villains, there’s just so much energy and camp appeal to the character. He is, without a doubt, something of a dandy, with a certain sartorial elegance and Stiers’ clear joy in playing the role. What’s more, he shows himself to be absolutely ruthless, particularly in his hatred of John Smith, whom he will stop at nothing to destroy (he even pulls a gun on him in their final climactic duel). Unfortunately, he’s not given too much to do, though the film does what it can to suggest that he’s managed to become a power behind the throne, even though it probably goes without saying that this has no basis in historical fact.
While he doesn’t have his own song — which he had in the original film — he does have a prominent part in the number “Things Are Not What They Appear,” which is, quite honestly, one of the few points where the old Disney magic makes an appearance. It’s a scene orchestrated by Ratcliffe, who intends to use a group of cruel jesters and a bear-baiting to goad Pocahontas into revealing her true “savage” self to James and the gathered courtiers. The jesters are quite unsettling to watch as they magically transform and gambol among the diners, and the bear and its (mercifully brief) torment are rendered well. The scene works pretty well, despite the patent absurdity of having a bear baiting in a banqueting hall. However, one can’t help but wish that the filmmakers had used a similar inventiveness when putting the rest of the script together.
The romance between Pocahontas and John Rolfe is fine, as far as it goes, but it lacks the power that one usually sees in the Disney romances. That’s unfortunate, because John Rolfe really does seem like a nice enough fellow, and in a different sort of film he might have even managed to become one of the more iconic Disney princes. There’s something of the Prince Eric in him, though fortunately Pocahontas is a much more dynamic and empowered female character than Ariel. For some reason, though, the film just can’t let go of John Smith (who’s voiced by Donal Gibson, Mel’s brother), even though the eventual breakup is so perfunctory that if you blink you miss it.
There are also a few scenes that do possess a certain poignancy, particularly the moment when Pocahontas departs for England and bids farewell to her dear friend, Nakoma. Of course, the film itself doesn’t depict Pocahontas’s death — which, according to history, happened before she was even able to leave England — but it does seem as if the film’s creators expected their audience to have at least an inkling of that. Thus, when we see the two of them say farewell, we know on some level that this will be the last time that they ever see one another alive. It’s yet another indication of just what this film could have accomplished had it been just a bit braver and didn’t lean so much into the cuteness and slapstick that is such a weakness in most of the Disney sequels.
That being said, I did enjoy the sequences involving Meeko. While the little raccoon may not be the most complex of the many Disney sidekicks, I’ve always thought he was quite charming, in large part because the animators managed to capture something of the cleverness and ridiculousness that always hover over nature’s little bandits. Meeko manages to inject some life into the film, and I found myself looking forward to the moments when he would appear on-screen and get into some of his signature mischief.
Pocahontas II is enjoyable enough, but to my eyes its primary flaw is that it’s just not that interesting. That is truly a shame, because the story of Pocahontas’ journey to London and her romance with Rolfe does have the makings of a certain tragic drama. Certainly, I wouldn’t have expected the filmmakers to actually depict her premature and quite tragic death in England, but it seems to me that they could have made a more compelling sequel by jettisoning the heavy fictionalization of history and the tedious (and ultimately extraneous) John Smith plot and allowing the romance between Rolfe and Pocahontas more time to flourish.