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Review: Moana (2016)

Moana (2016)

Directed by: Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, and Chris Williams

Premise: The native people of a Polynesian island face the collapse of their crops and fish stocks due to an ancient curse. Moana, the daughter of the chief (voice of Auli’i Cravalho), voyages across the ocean to find Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson), a demigod who can end the curse.

What Works: Moana is the latest Disney princess but she is far departed from Sleeping Beauty or even Pocahontas. The character most closely recalls Merida of Pixar’s Brave; she is spunky and intelligent and her decisions drive the story. The animators add a lot of subtle details to her character that give Moana a personality. Although the movie is named for its princess, the real star of Moana is Maui. The character is a muscular and tattooed demigod who is able to shapeshift with the power of his magical hook. Maui is voiced by Dwayne Johnson and the film matches the vocal performance with the character design. The look of Maui borrows elements from the actor’s own physique including some of his mannerisms. Maui is frequently the best element of the movie. The character is a boastful egomaniac and that should make him obnoxious but Johnson’s charisma makes Maui enjoyable to watch. The film is frequently at its best when Maui and Moana conflict, as they do throughout much of the center of the picture. They have an effective rapport that keeps things lively. The animation of Moana is vivid. The images of Moana and Maui sailing the ocean are almost indistinguishable from live action and the sea creatures are as detailed and textured as the aquatic life of Finding Dory. But the animation of Moana also includes some strange and surreal elements such as the attack of the coconut pirates and the weird visuals of the “You’re Welcome” musical number. This film has an effective blend of realistic and formalistic styles and Moana is a good case for what animation can do well. As a form, animation is inherently able to be more plastic than live action cinema and it can portray things like talking animals or interactive tattoos or buccaneering tropical fruit that would be absurd if it were presented in live action. The filmmakers are able to meld realistic elements with fantastic monsters in a way that makes narrative and aesthetic sense and that speaks well of the design and direction of the film. Moana is also very funny. In fact, this is one of the funniest films to come out of Disney Animation Studios in some time. A lot of that is due to Maui’s comic relief but it’s also due to some well-timed physical comedy and a witty script.

What Doesn’t: Moana is a fun character to watch but the plot remains firmly within the conventions of this kind of fantasy story. As in a lot of similar pictures, Moana is the “chosen one” who must save her people. She goes on a quest that tests her mettle and along the way Moana learns to believe in herself and discovers that what is really special about her was inside of her all along. That’s a familiar premise and a cliché theme. The filmmakers of Moana do it well but the hero boiler plate shows though in the mechanics of the narrative. She is sent on a quest that will save her people and the filmmakers work though the standard plot beats almost like a clock. The stakes of her quest aren’t concretized; there is little sense that if Moana fails there will be immediate and dire consequences. The series of trials that Moana passes through on her journey aren’t very innovative and the set pieces don’t always have much of a dramatic payoff. The music of Moana is adequate but that’s about all it is. None of the musical numbers are as catchy or as memorable as “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid or “A Whole New World” from Aladdin or “Let it Go” from Frozen.

Bottom Line: Moana is a good film but it is a middle tier Disney animated feature. It’s a conventional story that has been made with a great deal of craftsmanship which mostly compensates for the clichés. Moana is entertaining, funny, and upbeat and an all-around enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

Episode: #624 (December 4, 2016)