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MOANA (2016) review

November 29, 2016

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written by: Jared Bush (screenplay) Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell & Jordan Kandell (story)
produced by: Osnat Shurer

directed by: Ron Clements and John Musker
rated: Rated PG (for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements)
runtime: 103 min.
U.S. release date: November 23, 2016

 

In a Disney animated feature headlined by a strong-willed and determined female character, it’s refreshing and whelming to hear the word “princess” uttered only once.  I’ve grown tired of the studios obsession with royalty in their stories, but I understand it. It’s traditional fairy tale material that has been ripe for retelling for many generations. Granted, many of the Disney princesses have progressed over the years, to become more than your standard damsel-in-distress, they’re often still pining for love  or relying on others to embrace who they are. Not so with the title character in “Moana”, who is set to be the new chief of her people, not a princess gazing out at the horizon waiting for her future to begin.

Okay, she is gazing out at the horizon, but when you’re living on a lush island and your view is the South Pacific ocean all around you – how can you not? She’s drawn to it though/it beckons her and while that may sound familiar, it works well here. It’s something we see early on in an introductory montage which shows a toddler Moana following the call of the sea. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the ocean is drawn to her as well, and the two develop a connection that will impact the fate of her people and environment.

 

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“Maona” is set on a Polynesian island, inhabited by a Maori community called Manatui, where mythic folklore and traditional customs greatly influence their way of life. Their leader is Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison, “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones”), the overprotective father of teenage daughter, Moana Waialiki (voiced by newcomer Auli’l Cravalho), whom he is grooming for the chieftain position she is destined to fulfill. She has grown into an astute young woman, with a head that offers practical and resourceful food solutions to her people’s needs and a heart to explore the seas that stretch the horizon, if only her father wouldn’t limited her to the reef. While Moana is respectful, she also knows that she has to think outside the rules that have been imparted to her, now that resources on her island are dwindling.

With help from Tala (Rachel House), her intuitive grandmother, Moana learns that the island’s plight is a result of a curse triggered by the actions of Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a shape-shifting demigod with a magic fishing hook, who long ago stole a glowing a pounamu stone, that belonged to the island goddess, Te Fiti.  In order to make things right, Moana sets sail past the reef with her dim-bulb pet rooster, Heihei (Alan Tudyk, of course), in order to track down Maui and make him return the stone to its rightful place. At first, the self-focused Maui refuses to assist her, but he is eventually won over by her determination and forms a reluctant partnership with Moana, understanding the big picture stakes of her precarious journey.

When it was announced a couple years back that there would be a 3D computer-animated feature called “Moana” that would be situated in the South Pacific, it was only fitting that they cast Dwayne Johnson to voice one of the characters. The half-Samoan would not only lend some star power to the feature (even though viewers would only hear him), he’d actually be able to join a cast that is predominately made up of other actors of Polynesian descent. While there may be familiar story-telling conventions in this musical comedy-adventure from co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker (the duo who helmed classics such as “Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”), they are traditions that have worked in the past and they are just as successful here in this magical and touching story.

 

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The vibrant colors and mesmerizing visuals of “Moana” are an instant draw, inviting viewers an escape from the drab of daily life, an outlets the movies has always provided. Beaming sunshine meeting the blue ocean at the horizon and a myriad of stark greens that populate the island, are all simply breathtaking. The character design is as charming as the characters themselves and it’s inventive too, with the ocean itself coming to life as a valuable character in Moana’s life (reminiscent of James Cameron’s water FX back in his 1989 sci-fi thriller “The Abyss”) that guides and looks out for her. Directors Clements and Musker oversee animators who create a Polynesian paradise, using daylight and moonlight, water reflections and expansive skies, to create an environment that is alive and moving. Although it’s often expected for a Disney movie to look this good, I still never grow tired of appreciating how creative and impressive it is.

The movie opens with captivating (and necessary) exposition at the start, that fills us in on local history – how Maui had stolen Te Fiti’s heart (the aforementioned glowing green stone), but soon lost it and his magical fish-hook when confronted and defeated by the lava demon, Te Ka. Then we move on to a musical montage of friendly islander interaction, focusing on the warm and content families who depend on fishing and coconut collecting, as the first of many infectious songs kick in. Yes, this is a Disney musical and an action comedy at that, in the same lineage of “Tangled” and “Frozen”. The songs of “Moana”, written by Opetia Foa’i (vocalist for the Oceanic music group Te Vaka), composer Mark Mancini and “Hamilton” star Lin-Manuel Miranda, are catchy and hummable even while watching, something that usually catches on after viewing.

As the adventures of the charming Moana and obnoxious Maui continue, they encounter different characters along their journey and audiences are treated to more songs. As Moana, Carvalho has an earnest strength and purity that is apparent in her singing voice, like in the rousing anthem “How Far I’ll Go” and anyone wondering if The Rock can carry a tune will find his funny song “You’re Welcome” quite the highlight of the movie. Composer Mancini’s propelling score elevates the action sequence that follows our duo’s run in with Pygmy pirates called Kakamora, who are trying to grab the stone for themselves. Moana and Maui meet Tamatoa (a hilarious Jemaine Clement), a giant treasure-hoarding coconut crab from Lalotai, an island called the Realm of Monsters, who breaks out into another catchy song, appropriately named “Shiny” (stay seated for an additional scene with this character at the very end of the closing credits). The songs fit the storytelling well, accentuating emotions when needed and successfully striking the right humorous chord as needed.

 

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The screenplay by Jared Bush (who co-wrote Disney’s immensely successful animated feature from earlier this year, “Zootopia”) does have a familiar ‘hero’s journey’ beat to it and revolves around yet another female lead. While it’s something I still welcome, it’s hard not to feel like there is an overemphasis on female characters after the aforementioned “Frozen” and “Tangled” and even “The Princess and the Frog” (also directed by Clements and Musker) to compensate for equality. Still, I can’t reiterate enough how we should all be glad that there are no princesses in this feature, nor does our lead have a love interest. It may be uncertain why seven writers (always cause for concern) are credited with the story here – something that never bodes well – but, the story’s heart is in the right place, even if there are certain sight-gags and one-liners that are repetitive at times. (I will say that “Moana” has probably the best use of the overused ‘pee joke’ that I’ve seen in a good while). Yet when lead performances are this committed and charismatic, it’s easy to forgive any eyeballs in the comedy department.

I rarely ever talk box office grosses when reviewing a movie, but “Moana” earning an estimated $81.1 million during its opening five-day Thanksgiving weekend in the States (the second-highest Thanksgiving debut ever behind “Frozen”), had me thinking about the year Disney’s been having with its “products”. At this point, that’s what a Disney animated feature is, a sure-fire product that audiences can rely on for entertainment, and sometime subvert expectations like “Zootopia” did. Without a doubt, 2016 will go down as a banner year for Disney, not only financially, but also in the sheer quality of movies they’ve released. Spring saw huge hits like “Zootopia” and “The Jungle Book” and then came blockbuster summer movies, “Captain America: Civil War” and “Finding Dory”, followed by winter fare, like the Marvel property “Doctor Strange” and now “Moana”. And there’s still a new Star Wars movie coming out next month (which is currently tracking at $135m opening), so there’s no doubt they will end the year with a bang.

I bring this up because it saddens me Disney couldn’t go out of their way to over-promote two releases that were far from products, “Pete’s Dragon” a wonderful remake released in August that was surprisingly touching and unique, and the excellent “true-story” drama “Queen of Katwe”, an inspiring September release which the studio didn’t know what to do with it, despite receiving rave reviews. If these two films received half the promotion each of the other proven properties were given, they might have found a larger audience – or at least, they should’ve.  End of rant.

This movie may surprise certain moviegoers who may go in with certain expectations. It’s fun and funny and is a crowd-pleasing/all-ages experience. “Moana” is a lively, beautifully animated movie with enjoyable and funny characters, immersed in a tale of high-seas adventure and infectious songs. It’s the kind of movie that will receive repeat viewings in the theater, the kind that’s easy to lose yourself in and recommend to others.

Like so many Disney animated features lately, there’s an animated short that precedes “Moana”. This one’s called “Inner Workings”  and follows the brain, heart, lungs, stomach (as well as the bladder and kidneys) of a man named Paul as he goes about a typical work day at a monotonous desk job. It’s clever and funny hand-drawn, computer animation, directed by Leo Matsuda (who served as a story artist on Disney’s “Big Hero 6” and “Wreck-It Ralph”), but it may resemble “Inside Out” somewhat and also land a bit too close to home for those viewers currently stuck in unfulfilling jobs. Still, Paul’s inner workings eventually help him break his daily schedule and have a little spontaneous fun, finding his unpredictability contagious to those around him. Maybe it just serves as a reminder that no matter what you do for a living, happiness is still within reach.

 

 

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RATING: ***

 

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