Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Moana (2016) (Movie Review)

     Back in the early 1990’s, I was privileged to grow up with some of Disney’s greatest animated movies, and looking back on that time, I was never really aware of the great Golden Age of Disney animation I was living in until years later. Well, I’m going to say it now before it’s too late … “the current  two-thousand-teens mark a new Golden Age of Disney animation”. There was a time in which it seemed that Disney could never produce an animated film better then Pixar, but they’re actually surpassing most of what Pixar has done in the past couple years. With films like “Frozen”, “Big Hero 6” and “Zootopia” receiving critical acclaim, and breaking records at the box office, it seems that the studio is finally souring again just like in its glory days. Disney’s more recent 2016 animated movie “Moana” is yet another outstanding entry to their collective works, and personally, this is the Disney movie that has won me over to this new Golden age. After the death of traditional 2D animation, I was in denial that I could ever truly love another animated Disney film. Well, not only is “Moana” my personal favorite of the 3D animated Disney movies, but I might just put it among my top five favorites Disney films in general. It’s a film that stays true to the Disney formula, but it also adds new layers to it, along with a big splash of creative originality.

   “Moana” is Disney’s 56th animated studio feature, and might just be their first original fantasy story that’s not adapted from any existing source material. Previous Disney movies like “Tangled” and “Frozen” were all adapted from existing fairytales and novels like “Rapunzel” and “The Ice Queen”, but “Moana” is a completely original tail that’s heavily influenced through Polynesian Mythology. While myths of the demy God character Moui do stem from the real Polynesian islands, there was still no specific literary score material for “Moana”, which makes the end product feel all the more special. In this movie, Moana is an island princess who sets sail for an adventure across the sea in an effort to save her island from a mysterious darkness that’s slowly killing her home. Her goal is to find The mystic and mischievous Demy God named Moui who was responsible for angering a Goddess and setting the Ocean world out of balance. Through her courage and a heart of gold, she puts the self-centered demy God on the path of redemption, and a friendship ensues between the two. So together they aim to bring balance back to the ocean by calming the angered Sea Goddess. On their quest they sail to various mystical islands, battle pirates, a giant crab monster and come across various other oddities along the journey.

     The first thing that won me over is the character Moana herself. Oh, my goodness … I absolutely adored this character. For the longest time both Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” and Pocahontas were tied as my favorite among the classic Disney princesses, and Anna from “Frozen” was my favorite of the new modern age. As of now, I think Moana is quite possibly my favorite of all the Disney girls. 

It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about this character that feels very special, and sets a new standard for the Disney princesses. She has all the same cute quirks and a contagiously cheerful personality that made previous characters like Rapunzel and Anna appealing, but she also has the same strong, independent, character driving force that I loved from many of Hayao Miyazaki’s Anime characters. Most especially, the combination of Moana’s strength and love made me think of Princess Nausicaa from “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”. The opening scene alone in which she chooses to protect a baby sea turtle instead of taking a pretty item from the beach summed up everything great about this character and it’s easily my favorite introduction scene to any of Disney’s princesses. Another great aspect of Moana’s character is that while she clearly has her own wants and dreams that go against the order of her tribe, she’s also still very committed to her ruling position. The majority of Disney Princesses are all vary rebellious to their royal positions and rarely ever have any interaction with the people of their kingdoms. Moana on the other hand actually dose go out among her people, helps them with their daily lives and just puts her all into her position of leadership, which is really refreshing. It’s also great to see a Disney Princess from a different ethnicity, and not just another blond girl. On a side note, I’m so glad that Moana was able to stay single, and didn’t draw attention to the fact in any way. Personally, I felt that recent Disney movies like “Brave” put way too much emphases on the notion that the girl didn’t fall in love and stayed single. There’s also some very funny self-referential hummer aimed at common princess tropes, most notably of all is that a non-princess will still be labeled as such.   

   The voice cast, while small is still phenomenal, especially new comer Auli’I Cravalho who supplies the voice of our lead princess. She’s definitely a new talent to watch out for, and brings the character of Moana to life with a breathtaking voice, and lots of passion. Dwayne Jonson is also very good and extremely charismatic as the self-centered Demy God Moui, who’s one of those jerk characters you love to hate. Dwayne Jonson in general has always been a charming talent and it’s great to finally see that appeal come to life in an animated character. Other animated characters voiced by celebrities typically fall victim to being obvious stereotypes of themselves, but Dwayne Jonson brings the character Maui to life with that same love that Robin Williams himself brought to the role of the Genie way back in Disney’s “Aladdin”. 

The cute comedic side characters also provide some laughs, most notably is Maui’s little tattoo that comes to life, and seems to have the most personality of any one. On that note, I love how Maui’s tattoos can come to life and tell stories, as it’s visually captivating and something that I’ve never seen before. Alan Tudyk is also very funny as a brainless rooster, although he admittedly is the most useless animal side kick I’ve ever seen, and usually Disney’s comedic animals can be just as funny as they are helpful … but not this rooster. I also really liked the kooky grandma character, which actually brings me to one of the film’s most shocking moments (Spoilers ahead). It’s not uncommon for one of the parent characters to get killed off in a Disney film, in fact at this point it’s almost a tradition, but I never would have expected Disney to kill off a funny grandma character, that never happens. Her death was also earned, and a genuinely emotional moment that wasn’t overly dramatic.    

   Another one of the films great strengths is its enchanted ocean setting. Personally, I can’t remember the last time I felt this submersed in a films magical environment. Unlike say “The Little Mermaid” that only featured an underwater Kingdome with mythical mer-people, the ocean setting of Moana takes on a completely unique life of its own and features some of the wildest things I’ve ever seen. We have Goddesses becoming one with the surroundings of nature, a different realm full of monsters that dwell under the ocean floor, people coming back from the dead as animal spirits, and even the Ocean water itself is like a living entity with its own distinct personality. There’s a very atmospheric scene in which Monna discovers a cavern of ships, and through pounding on the drums it causes the lanterns to flare up and a tapestry comes to life telling the story of her ancestors. Just about everything from the setting, to the culture, to the myths intrigued me. The stunning 3D animation speaks for itself. Of course, it looks great, with very absorbing colors, but the backdrops half the time are some of the most photo realistic to come from a Disney production. There’s even select moments in which traditional 2D animation is woven in with the 3D cells, and it’s such a cool effect that celebrates both the old and the new. 

    One thing that appeals to my own personal taste is the overall tone and pacing of the movie. I love how this film takes it’s time allowing the audience to get to know the characters while also letting us enjoy the films unique environment. It never feels rushed, but also has a great deal of energy and fun on display. Having said that, there are some people, particularly little kids that might feel the exact opposite, and may find it a little boring in places. I say this mostly because when I saw this movie in the theater, I heard a lot of kids asking their parents when the film was going to end. This is where many young adults, or maybe adults in general may take more away from this film then their kids. The scenes that might come off as boring to little children may be quite impactful to some older viewers. Personally, I felt the film delivered more than enough entertainment, as well as some well-placed action scenes. I loved all the sinister creatures our heroes battled on their journey, and felt they came in a nice variety, with unique designs, and even their own charms. One of my favorite action highlights is when our heroes are attacked by these little coconut pirates, who all had fun designs and I loved the visual details of their ships.  

     I especially liked the giant crab monster, which is probably the most bizarre detour in the whole film, but extremely entertaining. He might just be my favorite of the one-shot villains, kind of like Madam Mim from “The Sword in the Stone” who’s only there for one scene but still very memorable. His villain song too is a lot of fun in just how colorful and wired it is. On that note, lets finally talk about the songs, as this is without a doubt one of Disney’s best animated musicals. These songs are outstanding as they both sound great, and add substance to the films themes, ideas and characters. Dwayne Johnsons “You’re Welcome” is probably one of the catchiest tunes I’ve heard in years, in fact it’s bouncing around in my head right now as I’m talking about it. The musical number “We Know the Way” boasts another very upbeat melody that will be playing around in your head after you hear it. My personal favorite number is the triumphant “I am Moana” song which was both touching and got me thrilled. Of course, the big break out song is “How Far I’ll Go”, which thankfully didn’t over stay it’s welcome the same way “Let it go” did back in “Frozen”. 

   If I had any problems with “Moana”, it would be that the film occasionally recycles some very familiar elements and tropes from previous films. We have an ignorant parent who can’t see passed his own narrow sited mind, we have the two friends breaking apart even though we know they’ll get back together, etc. However, the execution of all these tropes, the story in general, and especially the moral at the end are all masterfully handled, so there’s really not much to complain about. For every recognizable Disney formula on display, there’s some clever twists to other time warn clich├ęs, and again the films setting continues to excite the imagination with no shortage of creativity. The climax also plays with expectations, as it starts a blazing spectacle in which our hero’s battle a giant lava monster, but then it gradually transitions into one of the most touching and impactful finales I’ve seen in recent years. Without a doubt, this one final scene of Moana slowly walking down the split Ocean road toured the ragging monster just gave me chills all over. It was shot beautifully, it got me right in the “feels” and … Oh, it’s just one of my favorite Disney movie moments. 

   All in all, “Moana” combines everything I love into one highly entertaining animated experience. It has great music, the atmosphere of its magical setting is consistently enticing, and even the moral was very meaningful without shoving the message down your throat. Of course, Moana herself just seemed to combine all the best Disney princess into one perfect package, while still feeling like an original character who could stand apart from the crowd. All in all, I loved this film, and love it more with repeated viewings. While I also loved previous 3D princess movies like “Tangled” and “Frozen”, this one just really got to me, and felt special. I’d easily put “Moana” among Disney’s best Princess offerings, in fact it’s now my personal favorite and considering how big their lineup has been … that’s really saying something.

 I give “Moana” a solid 5 stars out of 5.