Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Catching Disney's Wave

Over the holiday weekend, I went to see Disney's newest animated feature, Moana. It was a triumph on many levels -- though I felt it didn't quite reach the heights set by Disney of late.

The movie absolutely continues Disney's push to tell more topical stories with more progressive characters. First, Moana is a welcome addition/revision to the stable of Disney princesses. As the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe, she's "royalty." But as she is being groomed to lead the tribe herself, her destiny is far greater than to be an object of affection. (At the risk of giving a very minor spoiler, there isn't even a romantic subplot of any kind in the movie.) Second, the threat that spurs the whole plot into motion is climate change; Moana's lush island is dying, and her quest is to see a delicate natural balance restored.

A lot of things work well in service of these modern messages. For one, it's simply a gorgeous movie -- I think the most visually stunning Disney or Pixar has ever produced. The movie is stuffed full of fertile vegetation, mighty ocean waves, and menacing lava floes. There are bioluminescent creatures, a character with living tattoos that comment on the action, and scenes set in otherworldly dreamscapes. There are sequences that seem wholly original, and others that seem meticulously crafted to evoke recent pop culture titans like The Hobbit and Mad Max: Fury Road. The Thanksgiving release feels appropriate; this is a Thanksgiving feast for the eyeballs.

The characters also make a good impression. I've already noted the mold-breaking qualities of Moana herself (though I mention her again now to highlight the vocal work of Auli'i Cravalho). Moana also has a fun and memorable grandmother named Tala, voiced by Rachel House. Casting Dwayne Johnson as demigod Maui is a perfect use of his public persona, and a jumping off point for deeper things. And the animators surely had a field day with Maui, probably the most... well, animated Disney character since the Genie in Aladdin. Also harkening back to Aladdin (in this case, to the magic carpet and the monkey Abu), Moana includes a great non-speaking character in the rooster Heihei (proudly labeled by one of the movie's directors as "the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation.")

It's harder for me to peg just what secret sauce was missing for the movie overall. I think one shortcoming -- and I'm sure some Hamilton fans will dispute me on this -- is the music. The songs of Moana are written by Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. They definitely capture the Polynesian flavor of the story and advance the plot, but I don't feel they make a lasting impression. Forget "Let It Go" levels of earworminess, I don't even think there was a "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" in here. (Maybe Maui's self-congratulatory anthem "You're Welcome"?)

The movie might also be a touch too long. In rigid adherence to the hero's journey formula, Moana (the character) goes through perhaps one too many setbacks only to (of course) rebound. Or perhaps it's that the rebounding is sometimes too easy for you to have ever taken the setback all that seriously.

Still, whatever drawbacks Moana may have are minor. And I'd say the film outshines Disney's other effort this year, Zootopia. I give Moana a B+.

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