Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Moana movie review.

56 movies and eight decades in, Disney Animation Studios continues to remain the world's most famous and beloved animation powerhouse. But once upon a time, their future looked bleak. With the disastrous Black Cauldron having nearly cratered them, the studio needed a new mega-hit to bring them back to life. Four years later, their salvation came in The Little Mermaid, a movie that rejuvenated and remodified the company back to its former glory, perfecting the now tried and true Disney Renaissance formula.

Since then, the film's directors, John Musker and Ron Clements, have remained active contributors within the mouse house's walls, having later helmed zany comedy hits Aladdin and Hercules, and even attempting to recreate their Mermaid success with The Princess and the Frog. In the second of Disney's two big animated releases this year after Zootopia, the duo make their grand entrance into the realm of computer animation with the Polynesian themed Moana. But can it be their CG answer to their original trend-setter?

Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is a young chief's daughter on the island of Motonui, a girl who dreams of venturing beyond the limited confines of her home, but who is also dedicated to the traditions of her ancestors before her, that frown upon departing their home. However, when the plant life of her island slowly begins dying, she ventures out to find the mythical demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who according to legend stole a vital artifact to the life of the islands a thousand years ago. When finding the boastful demigod, the two soon become unlikely allies trekking the ocean together, and to set the course of nature right once more.

To an occasional fault, Moana is very much faithful to the Renaissance formula that Disney had instilled over two decades earlier. While in no way a bad film because of its adherence, it still is a far cry from the inventiveness of Frozen, as the movie doesn't leave very much room for surprises. It's the age old story of your ambitious young dreamer, who sets out on an incredible journey joined by faithful sidekicks, battling it out against fearsome threats and villains on the way, finding newfound strength within her by the end, all with the occasional song break. It's very much Musker and Clements working within their comfort zone, which isn't necessarily bad, as the duo's directorial strengths still allow them to execute those beats very well, and still wring some sincere emotion out of it.

But at the same time, while those aforementioned surprises aren't a great many, they're still a very welcome inclusion that make the film more powerful than it otherwise would have been on its own. Moana herself is an absolute gem of a main character, a spirited young girl torn between the traditions of her people and her heritage, and her deep-rooted desires of venturing out beyond the horizon to discover what new lands lie beyond her home. Yet beyond those desires and those sweeping "I Want" songs, her journey is a more complicated voyage of self-discovery, with the ocean (figuratively and literally built as a character) often reflecting the very turbulent feelings racing through her mind, or seeming vast and empty as if to reflect her own confusion and true realization of what she wants. She's given further irresistible energy by outstanding newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, gracing the role with much needed soul, wit, and enthusiasm. Making for a great double act beside her is Dwayne Johnson's Maui, a boastful and powerful force of nature that uses the actor's masculine presence and infectious charisma to the best of his abilities, while eventually working in some weightier moments of humanity.

The rest of the characters are generally not as deep or all that focused on, often existing simply to fill the aforementioned roles of the formula Musker and Clements work within, with Rachel House's Grandma Tala being a zany but loving beacon of knowledge for Moana, her parents (voiced by Temuera Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger) making decent figures of authority and opposing representations of love, or those characters used in marketing to lure in children. Characters like that include the Kakamora, little coconut warriors who look to be Disney's answer to Mad Max (but no flamethrower guitar. Lame), and Moana's animal sidekick Hei Hei, an absolutely moronic chicken voiced by Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk, who feels like little more than a background detail outside of a couple laughs. One character I could have used more screentime with is Tamatoa, a villainous and greedy giant hermit crab voiced by Jemaine Clement. Coming in halfway through the film, Tamatoa once had a bad run in with Maui, and inspired by the demigod's body art, is now obsessed with covering his shell in the shiniest glittering gold he can find, making Smaug look humble by comparison. Clement plays the role very much like a Tim Curry villain, earning a number of big laughs and some clever fourth wall jabs, and with just his one standout scene, the character instantly steals the show from underneath everyone else.

But if for no other reason, Moana is still worth the price of admission for its beautiful visuals and music. I cannot understate just how magnificent the animation of the film looks, often rendered in such a stylized but photo-realistic fashion that dazzles and astounds with every sequence passing, from small details like the rustle and flow of Moana's hair, to bigger set-pieces with the gargantuan beasts Maui and Moana face on their journey, as well as the amusing Maui tattoos hand-drawn animated by Disney veteran Eric Goldberg and his team. Also, being a Disney musical, one can't forget to mention the songs, here co-written by Hamilton and In the Heights mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda. Joined by Te Vaka's Opetaia Foa'i and composer Mark Mancina, the trio create a terrific accompanying soundtrack, full of beautiful and emotional songs both in English and Tahitian that contribute perfectly to the narrative. They're especially wonderful for Miranda's ever so impressive vocabulary and clever writing, seizing the opportunity handed to him with firm hands, and making them more than worthy to join the ranks of Alan Menken's Mermaid and Aladdin tunes. I mean, how many other movies do you know of have songs that rhyme "demigod" with "decapod" (Look it up)?

And to give credit to Moana, in spite of its familiarity and obvious formula, there is still quite a lot on its mind despite those concerns. The film is full of important messages peppered throughout of the necessity of remembering the history - both dark and light - that came before us, and learning to confront them in order to properly move forward, and in a surprisingly effective and subtle move, it also gracefully stresses the importance of valuing the land given to us. Coming out over half a year after Zootopia, there's no doubt the hype placed on Moana's shoulders was a great pressure, but still makes for a welcome new installment for the Musker/Clements duo, at once a funny and entertaining adventure, while also making a touching and engaging piece of storytelling. What can I say except "Thank you"...

**** / *****

And now I have finally finished my run-through of every animated Disney movie up to this point. Join me back on November 30th for the continuation of my retrospective, where I'll be counting down the Top Ten Disney Animation Songs.

No comments:

Post a Comment