Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Series Report Card: Disney Animated Features (2016) Part 2

55. Moana

When it comes to Disney's Animated Features, I'm a traditionalist. I like it when the studio tackles fairy tales and princesses, with lots of songs and dances. So I met the announcement of “Moana” with excitement. Applying the Disney Princess formula to Polynesian mythology was an interesting idea, even if it was hardly the first time the studio set a film in Hawaii. The world of gods and monsters potentially provided new opportunities for the Mouse Factory. And while I'll always miss hand-drawn animation, I knew all that water was going to look pretty in the studio's signature CG style. Does the film live up to my expectations?

Set long ago in the Hawaiian islands, “Moana” follows the titular young girl. Her father hopes Moana will become the chief of her community. The girl, on the other hand, wishes to become a sailor. Her community has lived on this island for years. The villagers rarely sail beyond the reef that surrounds the land mass, fearing the wild ocean too much. Soon, a strange disease grips the lands and seas. The fruit rots on the vine. The nets bring up no fish. Moana believes that an ancient prophecy, involving legendary demi-god Maui and destructive volcano deity Te Ki, is the key to solving this problem. When she disobeys dad and sets sail, she discovers how right she is. Now, Maui and Moana most put aside their differences to save the island.

I'm not the only one fond of Disney's well-trotted formula. “Moana” is an almost archetypal story of a princess rebelling against tradition. The titular character is comparable to previous princesses, like Jasmine, Ariel, and Mulan. As in those films, Moana's father insist she follow a traditional path. He wants her to stay in a secure location. The girl, on the other hand, has other ideas. She sneaks away and heads out on a journey. Moana's dad nearly recreates the sequence of King Triton destroying Ariel's secret collection, when he threatens to burn the boats Moana has discovered. Like Belle, Moana feels a responsibility to her family but is drawn towards adventure. “Moana” isn't derivative so much as it happily follows the footsteps laid out before it.

I'm actually fine with this. The commitment to formula is noticeable but never distracting. What is concerning is how “Moana” handles probably the most overused story turn in modern fantasy fiction. I'm talking about Moana being the Chosen One. She is literally picked by the ocean when she's a baby. The ocean isn't just a metaphorical force. It's a physical character. Throughout the film, Moana falls into a body of water, just for an animated wave to push her back onto dry land. This is most egregious during the film's climax, when the moving wave rescues the girl. The film tries to save this, by animating this magical wave as another cutesy sidekick. It still strikes me as an overly literal, disappointingly easy writing decision.

Despite this issue, Moana is still an impressively realized character. She has more agency then many of the previously cited Disney Princesses. She has an incredible force of will. Once she has a mission in mind, she refuses to waver. Moana is determined to achieve her goal and nothing will stop her. Yet she's also a thoughtful, feeling character. Sailing past the reef isn't a decision that she makes easily. She considers the affect of her actions on her family and community. She's strong but allowed to be vulnerable, tough but in over her head. Auli'i Cravalho, a widely touted new discovery, gives a vital, powerful vocal performance.

In the post-Lasseter era, Disney makes sure their animated features appeal equally to both young girls and young boys. So there's usually some funny, adventurous male hero accompanying the female protagonist. It was Flynn Rider in “Tangled,” Kristoff in “Frozen,” and Nick in “Zootopia.” In “Moana,” this role falls to Maui. A notable figure in Hawaiian mythology, he's a lovable creation. He luxuriates in his godly accomplishment, painted all over his body in tattoos. One of these tattoos even comes to life, frequently interacting with Maui, as his own sidekick. He's boisterous, a braggart, and initially motivated entirely by selfish impulses. He's never unlikable though, thanks to the vocal performance of Dwayne Johnson. Considering he's the most prominent Polynesian actor in Hollywood, it was inevitable that Johnson appeared in the film. Since Johnson has a boundless charm, he's well suited to the role. Yet Maui has a hidden side, an insecurity, all of his epic deeds motivated by a desire for acceptance. How he overcomes this flaw is easy to guess but satisfying to watch.

“Moana” has its share of laughs too. In addition to the cartoonish wave that helps her out, Moana has two animal sidekicks. The first of which is Pua, an adorable pet pig that clowns around on the island with her. The second of which is Heihei, a very eccentric rooster. The bird frequently stumbles into trouble, walking cluelessly off the boat. Maui's reaction to meeting the bird is to fatten him up, for an eventual meal. The biggest laugh in the film occurs when the demi-god is attempting a moment of sincerity... While his top half is still transmogrified into a shark. His slow realization of this is priceless. “Moanan's” sense of humor is even occasionally impish, like when the princess realizes exactly what a stream of warm water is.

The visuals in “Moana” are, of course, gorgeous. The endless sea of crystal clear, blue water is a feast for the eyes. Inside of these magnificent colors, the film composes a series of memorable action sequences. The best of which has Moana and Maui's tiny boat being beset by pirates. Not ordinary pirates. Instead, they are funny creatures, wearing brilliantly painted tribal masks and wearing coconut shells for armor. The set piece builds, piling more inconveniences in the heroes' paths. The two leap around the attackers, the camera swinging around with them. That sense of motion is carried throughout the film, the action scenes brought to life with speed and energy. (No wonder the previous “Mad Max” movie was an inspiration to the filmmakers.)

For “Frozen,” Disney drafted a pair of Broadway song-smiths to craft the film's music. While hugely popular, I found their work to be mixed. A similarly hot stage writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda of this “Hamilton” thing people won't shut up about, was picked to write the songs for “Moana.” So I was skeptical. The first musical number, establishing Moana's village and the people in it, didn't strike me was great. It's a little heavy on the exposition and comic relief goofiness. “How Far I Go” is clearly destined to be the film's breakout hit. It's Moana's “I Want” song and obviously owes a debt to “Let It Go.” And it's not bad, though I find the lyrics to be slightly awkward and the film reprises it one time too many.

However, the music picks up a lot after that. “We Know the Way” happily mixes traditional Hawaiian music with show tune glitz, making a catchy and impactful song. Maui's introductory number, “You're Welcome,” is one of my favorite songs from the film. Though it's clear Dwayne Johnson's singing voice has limitations, the lyrics are funny, the melody is unforgettable, and the accompanying animation is gorgeous. “I Am Moana” leans a little heavily on the schmaltz but still makes a power display for Crahalvo's voice. Miranda, it must be said, doesn't make the mistake the “Frozen” writers did. All the songs keep the story moving forward.

These other songs are good but they aren't my favorite musical number in the film. For that matter, one sequence in “Moana” stands head and shoulders above the others. While looking to retrieve Maui's magical fish hook, the heroes dive into a weirdo pocket dimension. Down there, the ocean floats above their heads. Monsters, like multi-eyed bat creatures and eel-like monstrosities, attack the heroes. At the center of this scene is Tamatoa, a giant crab monster covered in gold, with the distinct voice of Jemaine Clement. He then sings a glam rock number about how fabulous he is. Yes, Jemaine is doing his Bowie impersonation. And, yes, it's absolutely amazing. “How Far I Go” is going to get the Oscar nomination but “Shiny” is clearly the awesome-est number in the film.

There's really only one time that “Moana's” sheer commitment to the Disney formula is frustrating. It's the end of the second act, that story beat that can be poorly handled so easily. Moana and Maui have seemingly failed their mission. The heroes have run out of hope, forcing them to summon up the strength to complete the task at hand. In order to facilitate this, the film drags Moana's dead grandmother back into the story. It's a little too on the nose and draws attention to what is always a tricky part of an adventure movie.

You'll notice I haven't talked very much about “Moana's” primary villain. The bad guys in Disney cartoons are usually highly memorable. “Moana,” however, casts a personified natural disaster as its adversary. Te Ka is living lava. The character has no personality, voice, or drive beyond a generalized desire for destruction. It only appears in two or three scenes. “Moana” is going somewhere with this. In Hawaiian culture, volcanoes are destructive. They are also a symbol of rebirth, revitalizing the soil and creating new land. Te Ka, and the secret the villain hides, directly represents this. It's a little more complex then just a bad guy doing bad things.

“Moana” is obviously a crowd-pleaser. Its box office clearly shows that. The movie is a lot of fun, beautifully animated, wonderfully performed, with some great songs. Its strict reliance on formula is both interesting and frustrating, at times. Compared to Disney's modern day princess epics, I liked it better then “Frozen” but found it trailed behind “Tangled” and “The Princess and the Frog.” Yet “Zootopia” has unexpectedly emerged as the fresher, funnier Disney Animated Feature of the year. That's not a knock on “Moana,” which is still a fine motion picture. [Grade: B]

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