Saturday, 31 December 2016

Movie Review: Moana (2016)



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Before the House of Mouse brought Marvel and Star Wars into their collective fold, they had already proven their worth for rather shrewd business ideas with the Disney Princess canon. Taking what is essentially their most iconic characters and bringing them under a single banner has led to a lot of hot debating over the worth of both the label and the characters that fall within it. Now, this has resulted in more than a few feminist critiques over how these characters work as people to aspire to be, and there are certainly some problematic instances under that umbrella, but that’s not exactly my field of discussion. Besides, as a man, my opinion concerning who is an appropriate female role model would just end up being discarded before I even start talking. I don’t claim to have sat through all of the films in the canon, but I’ve seen enough to know that there are some good (Mulan), bad (Snow White) and everything in between when it comes to assertion. So, with this latest inclusion within the canon (that I’m sure will debated until the end of days as to whether it even counts as part of the Princess Line), I’ll admit that I’m interested to see where this studio will go next. This is Moana.


The plot: Moana (Auli’I Cravalho), the daughter of a chieftain on a Polynesian island, longs to experience the open seas despite the fears of her father (Temuera Morrison). However, when the island’s crops begin to die, Moana is chosen by the forces of nature for a very special task. She must seek out the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and travel with him to Te Fiti and return a sacred stone that Maui stole from the island goddess a thousand years earlier. The journey will be perilous but, in order to save not just her island but the whole world, Moana must rise to the task.

Disney casting, especially in light of their work with Marvel Studios, has always had a knack for dead-eyed accuracy, and this is certainly no exception to that. I mean, just the fact that they got The Rock to play the incredibly egocentric and kind of dickish Maui is proof positive of that, as he’s the kind of actor with the right abundance of charisma to make the character work. This is Cravalho’s first ever acting gig, let alone voice acting, but that certainly isn’t the impression you get from her performance as she is stone-cold brilliant here. Along with working well through her songs, she just exudes so much hidden authority and confidence that you genuinely believe that this teenager can consort with demigods and actually come out as the victor. Rachel House as Moana’s grandmother makes for a decent mentor role, Morrison is your standard overprotective parent, Nicole Scherzinger is just kind of there, not really much else to add beyond that, and Jemaine Clement as a giant gold-digging crab is pretty fun.

The music here, considering the talent behind it, is mostly kind of average. Combining traditional Polynesian instrumentation with contemporary orchestral elements, it often feels like it doesn’t make the most out of either. The score is composed by Mark Mancina, whose last work with the Disney was on the woeful Planes movies, but the songs themselves are written by Opetaia Foa’I of New Zealand band Te Vaka and Lin-Manuel Miranda, whom has had a very fruitful year as a result of his Broadway musical Hamilton. Now, the music itself is fine but the individual songs… I don’t know, they just don’t have the right punch to help them exist beyond the confines of the film itself. They work just fine in the film, like the crab’s villain song Shiny and Moana’s signature song Where You Are, but after the hideous overpublicizing of Disney’s last animated musical Frozen, this doesn’t even resemble having the same potential. Except for maybe You’re Welcome, Maui’s introductory song, which is made of awesome and considering The Rock’s pretty shaky history with music, that is quite an accomplishment. Then again, with how the still-ubiquitous nature of Let It Go has pretty much ruined that film for most people, maybe this film being a bit lacklustre when it comes to music might be a good thing in the long run.

The Disney Princess canon has a lot of recognizable tropes amongst its numerous titles, and this actually ends up sticking pretty closely to quite a few of them. We’ve got the overprotective parent and a deceased family member, as is required by Disney law, the animal sidekick, the “I Want More” song; you can safely pull out your bingo cards on this one. That said, this film carries a certain contemporary attitude that the Disney Princess films have had about the canon itself and its many clichés. It is more than willing to poke fun at the conventions of the genre, not to mention bringing up a certain bit of hypocrisy concerning animals within that canon (in a pretty funny jab at The Little Mermaid). However, more so than its approach to the notion of a princess in and of itself, this film gets interesting once it includes that this is a Polynesian princess. Disney and foreign cultures, especially when it comes to the Disney Princesses, can lead to some pretty iffy racial depictions. With that said, again bringing that self-awareness to the forefront, this film certainly had the right approach in depicting the inhabitants of the island. It doesn’t portray as backward in any fashion, and even when it does it’s only in comparison to their own heritage, not just what Western audiences assume is the right way for society to function. Given how this story started with a screenplay by Taika Waititi, the creator of Hunt For The Wilderpeople, and was later refined by Jared Bush who helped give us the astounding racial examination Zootopia, this is hardly surprising but still commendable to see.

It probably helps that, while it does utilize familiar tropes and ideas, it leads to what are quite frankly amazing results. Moana, in no uncertain terms, creates a new high watermark for assertiveness within the canon, given how she so easily deals with Maui’s egocentric mishaps and even manages to cut him down to size. I’ve shown an appreciation for stories that highlight man’s relationship with their faith, and man’s direct connection with their god(s) specifically, and this film is incredibly in how it handles that. Moana is depicted in the trailer as being friends with the ocean, in yet another instance of a sidekick(?) being a glorified version of an animation warm-up (give an inanimate object a personality), but all the strength and ability she shows isn’t down to just having nature constantly supporting her. Through how she interacts with not only Maui, but also the crab and ultimately the volcano demon Te Kā, she shows a level of personal strength, perseverance and just plain badassery that pretty much outclasses even the most macho of action films. Hell, even with how much progress the canon has made, she even outclasses the triumphs of past princesses. Mulan fought against gender prejudices, Elsa battled her own personal demons, Tiana redefined what is means to be a princess; Moana goes head-to-head with literal gods and, without any real supernatural strength or even brute force, wins. Game, set and match.

All in all, this is a tremendous effort by Disney and yet another high mark for the changing face of the Disney Princess. The characters are some of the strongest I’ve seen all year, both in personal strength and in terms of writing and performance, the writing makes some incredibly nuanced points about the legends created by divine figures and where humanity factors into the equation, the music is a bit weak but still good where it counts and the animation… it’s friggin’ Disney; of course it’s gorgeous. Hell, I’d actually chalk up this film’s one real misstep with the music as a good thing, since a soundtrack that can’t survive all that well outside of the film means that there is less chance that it will end up being ruined by overplay. With a film this good, I relish the opportunity to watch this years from now without any immediate backlash. It’s better than Hacksaw Ridge, as not only is this more consistent in its entertainment value, its overall themes and characters are just a lot better realized. However, as much as I out-and-out love the main characters here, this doesn’t quite measure up to the emotional sledgehammer that is Your Name.

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