After the success of Tangled and Frozen, Disney take their Princess revival to another continent hoping to strike gold a third time. Darren and Lee review Moana.
Disney has been having a good few years lately. Starting with Tangled, their animated movies seem to be going from strength to strength. Forgotten are the days when their best attempt at CGI movies were the lacklustre Dinosaur or, shudder, The Wild (nobody remembers that, I hope).
So out comes Moana the next big thing from Disney and their latest attempt to reinvent/revitalise the flagging Princess genre of movies. But does attempting to seek new audiences aboard their Moana flagship find a friendly shore? Or does the good ship Disney sail into shark infested waters?
Sink or swim. Hoist the flag.
Moana lives on a beautiful island and, being the young daughter of the chief, is fated to become the next chieftain of her village and so is told to do what is best for her community. But this girl has an unquenchable thirst for exploration and wants nothing more than to sail the ocean. Unfortunately, her father forbids this, stopping anyone from leaving the island. However, when disaster strikes she must leave the safety of home to find a demi-god and save her home.
Thankfully there are more boat puns in my review than there is in the actual movie. They had the self-control I sorely lack.
There isn’t actually a lot to say about this movie. Is it good? Yes, undoubtedly. The songs are catchy and upbeat; they convey the emotions and settings well without being gimmicky or too overused. Each song is a hit, and that’s to be expected with Lin-Manuel Miranda at the helm. (Last boat reference, I promise). Copying what worked for Frozen and getting a Broadway musical writer to write the music is a great choice and the songs work better towards a cohesive whole for the movie than they did in, say, Frozen.
The animation is beyond beautiful when it wants to be, the water effects sparkle and if you don’t want to start exploring the ocean yourself after some of the scenes then I think you’re a liar. And it’s so colourful, a scene later in the movie that could have quite easily been a drab and dark affair was bright and engaging, with neon colours lighting up each inch of the scenery and characters.
And the characters themselves are a lot of fun. The Rock as Maui will undoubtedly be a favourite of everyone. The obligatory comic relief character is actually pretty funny and stops just shy of being annoying; making him a mostly silent chicken was an idea Frozen should have thought of for Olaf. Moana herself is inherently likeable. Her strength of self and unwavering commitment juxtaposed with the uncertainty of youth is tried and tested and she is one of the more enjoyable female protagonists of the last few years. I do wish we got to see more of her however; more of her personality beyond her wish to sail. Instead, we have the chemistry of her and Maui sailing across the sea, and it’s good, don’t get me wrong, but I just wanted a little more of her.
If the movie does have a problem it’s in its villain.
Focussing on the lead isn’t a bad idea, but when you don’t sufficiently give time for the antagonist as well you undercut a lot of the tension and pace to a movie. There was no urgency to anything, and while the film does try to hammer it in at one point that bad things will happen if they don’t hurry, it’s so quick that it’s practically glossed over. I understand why the antagonist wasn’t shown a lot, it makes thematic sense, but it comes at a cost that interrupts the flow a little.
Whether that sacrifice was worth it depends on how you feel about the theme. ‘Find yourself and be yourself’ isn’t a new one for Disney movies; you could say that most of the last six years of their movies have dealt with it in one shape or form. But it’s never been so clear cut before, never so boldly stated without any real obstacles in its way.
Honestly, though, all my complaints are nitpicks. It is a damn good family movie. With great songs, characters, jokes and art, I’d easily recommend to anyone who somehow hasn’t seen it yet.
Still, I hold off a little before naming it an out and out classic. Maybe I’m being unfair here but like most of Disney’s latest works (with the possible exception of Zootopia), there feels like there is something missing. It’s all perhaps a little too polished, too carefully constructed. Like I’m getting the uncanny valley effect every time I see Tangled or Wreck-it-Ralph or even Moana.
It’s a great movie, one that I can see everyone enjoying like they’ve enjoyed the last bunch of Disney movies. But for me, it’s like seeing a reflection on the ocean’s surface; a shallow image floating above something much deeper.
[Darren’s review was first published 05/12/2016]
Iteration is not the same as imitation; it serves a far more progressive purpose than the copying of another’s style or achievement. If we need to contextualise Moana, we need to see it less as part of the Disney formula of princesses finding themselves in the midst of adventure (which already is a reiteration from finding themselves in the midst of romance), and more as a sum of elements from the previous works of directors Ron Clements and John Musker with Disney, and how they have managed to cherry-pick and transpose the better elements of their movies The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules and Treasure Planet into a movie that functions smoother, better and cleaner narrative-wise in exploring how the journey of self-identity can also translate as a trial to overcome the expectations forced upon us as children, compressed unto us as young adults to then be abolished and re-established as adults.
The hallmarks are all still there: the hero who wants to prove their worth, the “I Want” song summarising their specific hopes and dreams, the animal sidekick, the hapless comic relief, society’s expectations from this character and a grab-bag of villains, magical elements, prophetic lore, homogenised real-life cultures, touching music swells, revealing on-the-nose character songs and an incredible identity crisis. That’s before even getting into the act structure conventions such as the failed climax, the low-point, the hero who abandons the quest just to reappear “just in time” trope, the glitchy McGuffin, etc, etc. Contextually, post-Disney renaissance has been a battleground of exactly these elements and clichés, and that will ultimately put people off Moana, even if it manages to arrange them in a way that feels effective for the story it’s trying to tell, which it does.
Our story this time, at face value, appears to be about self-identity, but it’s really an act against conservatism; that attempting to maintain what we have without ever progressing as a society or as a developing individual will only lead to regressive attitudes and inevitable diminished returns. We have trend-bucker Grandma to tell us that there can be a middle ground, some grey area between conserving the values we have and moving ever forward in life, and it’s Moana’s job to take all that information on board and sail out into that metaphorical horizon with the duty of protecting her people but with the subtext of leading them forward rather than backwards like her father. Will she put another rock on the pillar, or a cool-looking sea shell; it’s all pretty on-the-nose, because it’s still Disney, but the values being impressed here are just as valuable as those in this year’s Zootopia/Zootropolis and, ultimately, it has something in it that both kids will pick up on and adults will be forced to sit through and inevitably embrace for the character’s sake.
So, after a rocky start, Moana’ll make way through the seas on her journey to discover her own path, meeting Maui, the demi-god of altruism who has lost his groove by going too far; Te Kā, the incarnation of regressive attitudes; Tamatoa, the self-motivated actual-hermit hermit crab; the Kakamora, marauding pirates who look to steal Moana’s will-inherent (the McGuffin heart of Te Fiti) and, with all these influences and opinions, Moana will somehow have to try to discover which is the best way forward. It’s a metaphorical folk story that surmounts perfectly, utilising all the established tropes of the hero’s journey to aide in a climax that feels satisfying and earned.
At the same time, Moana also happens to have the privilege of being gussied up in the glossiest finery Disney dollars can buy: beautiful animation, gorgeous colours and a vibrant world, a mythology that keeps on giving, a setting that plays perfectly into the allegorical nature of the characters and some of the catchiest, tone-matching songs and score to grace a big-budget kids film in quite some time. It’s an embarrassment of riches, as far as surface reasons to invest go.
Drawbacks are more nitpicks than genuine critiques: the chicken character barely justifies his reason for being on the journey, with his laughs just barely equalling the frustration he can induce. Maui is a fun character with an interesting backstory that works with the central narrative, and he hits just the right amount of pop culture to avoid being unbearable, but the movie occasionally uses him as a vessel with which to channel its hopes at creating marketing memes that are sure to catch on with the kids but are bound to drag anyone over the age of ten kicking and screaming out of the moment.
But the rest works, and works well: even the downbeat moments, which at first seem forced and simply fitting the mould, make a point of furthering character development and pushing their message further. The themes are greater than the characterisation here, and that’s fine, so long as the themes connect at the end and make for a good reading of the entire film; Moana ticks these boxes perfectly, and deserves its place in the American animated canon.