Monday, November 28, 2016

Disney Watch: Moana (2016)

This will be an easy movie to write up.  (1) I assume most of you who are the target audience (parents of young 'uns) will have seen this movie, and (2) I sort of lost any critical eye I might have had for the movie about five minutes in.

I just straight up liked this movie.

In no way am I familiar with Polynesian myth or culture, but my assumption is that the movie is based (albeit loosely in that Disney way) on legends and existing stories.  That's been Disney's M.O. since Snow White, and while it goes through various permutations or throwing out the original story as they go along (see: Frozen vis-a-vis The Ice Queen), there's a thread of something iconic, some core element of story telling in culture that resonates in most of Disney's stronger movies.

The stage for the movie is set with a retelling of how Maui, a demigod, once stole the heart of Te Fiti, but this led to both Maui's downfall and the darkening of the world as the green gave way to a spread of barren earth from island to island.  Skip ahead a millennia or so and you've got Moana, the daughter of a chieftain on an idyllic island, who - as a Disney lead - feels the call to adventure when she has both custodial duties of her people to attend to and parents trying to steer her away from leaving the island.  This being a Disney film/ YA adventure, she also has a grandmother who is seen as a crazy person but who sees adventure in her granddaughter.  Of course, push comes to shove and Moana abandons the island to save it and see what lies "beyond the reef".

After locating Maui, she's in a whirlwind of adventure, none of which I want to give away.

The character of Maui is voiced by Dwayne Johnson (AKA: "The Rock" of pro-wrestling fame), a man who has actually thrown off the shackles of his early career and is a legit good actor, even if the parts he picks don't appear in movies I particularly care about.  It turns out that Johnson can also carry a tune - at least better than most pro-wrestlers - and he's pitch perfect as the maybe-a-bit-arrogant demigod.  

Moana is our hero of the story, a spunky young woman somewhere between, uh... 14 and 20?  She's a cartoon.  It's unclear.  Voiced by an actor by the name of Auli'i Cravalho, she's maybe one of the least twee princesses since Mulan, and certainly one of the most fun.  The character certainly fits the template of the YA female hero (her parents love her but don't let her do whatever the hell she wants - which is a mistake!, she senses destiny beyond her front door) but as the story progresses, she doesn't feel quite like the blank slate so many characters remain as people and events around them grow but the hero only carries more burden without ever becoming particularly more interesting, just unlocking the story like pieces of a puzzle.  Certainly there's plenty of that - that's storytelling - but I'd argue Moana experiences a full character arc that goes well beyond her fulfilling her own sense of destiny.  

The movie is beautifully designed - a product of the Polynesian aesthetic combined with the South Seas locations and a team-effort fertile imagination that brings you everything from lush, reality-based landscapes to sub-aquatic transdimensional beast layers in black-light-poster colors.  Really, one of the moments that made me take a breath was when a gigantic ship appears on the horizon peopled by bizarre little gremlin-types.  It's just amazing to see the thing (and I HIGHLY recommend 3D).

It's also a movie that knows where to put the camera, something I was curious about as so much action takes place on a boat, and the last time I saw that in Waterworld, the movie was weirdly visually boring for a post-apocalyptic actioner.  As both Maui and Moana are characters in constant motion, and Moana and Maui both have some great action sequences, the camera movement and placement really keeps up a high level of energy visually.

The characters themselves are cartoons, but Disney hasn't anglocized the characters or watered down Polynesian faces to blank slates, and has cartoony, yes, but non-Disney standard body types for many of the characters, including Maui who is built not a little like some of the broad/ intimidating fellows you'll see in the Pacific islands and I recall from our semi-recent trip to Hawaii.  That's a pretty big step for Disney, but a great by-product of being able to model characters in 3D rather than 2D where dimensions can be really messed up unless they're really simplified.  

The animation is fantastic, and whether they used motion capture or rotoscoping to get there, it pays off.  I'm amazed.

Oh, and the "shiny" sequence?  Man - the light refraction in that was insane.

Some of the soundtrack is by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.  If you've been listening to the soundtrack to the Broadway show (and you should be), you can certainly hear a bit of what Miranda's done to great effect here and there in the score.

Look, I'm a dude who will defend the musical as an artform. That's not always a popular tack to take in the 21st Century, but when done well, musicals provide a unique way of communicating story and character that are incomparable in other genres. It's a way of building affinity for characters, a sort of inner monologue writ large, just as the best music does - only, you know, with a story tying those moments together, and it's no small thing that Miranda happened to be onboard here.  The building on themes within the music, the changes with each return of a refrain build the story and Moana herself as the film progresses.

If you're going to have another Disney Princess film, this seems like a pretty solid way to go.  I don't think too many folks registering the usual complaints against a Disney princess will have much ammo in this case, and even when the film draws attention to Moana as Disney Princess, like most everything in the movie, it just works.

I will cop to two things here as we wrap it up:

(1)  I don't know how they came up with HeiHei the chicken, but that bird may be my new favorite thing in a movie.  That is how you do a character with no story arc whatsoever.  Also - HeiHei may be the living embodiment of how I was through most of undergrad.
(2)  I don't know exactly why - I wasn't moody when I saw the movie, and I wasn't in a bad way, or tired - but I was sort of fighting that hot-throat, pre-cry thing through the last twenty minutes or so of the movie, which is a long time for a movie to sustain that kind of investment in the story and characters for a movie I kinda assume will have a blissfully happy ending.  I dunno.  I got wrapped up in the movie.  I take that as a good sign.

See it in 3D if you can.  It's a very pretty movie and Disney has been employing use of 3D, not just having stuff sort of pop out or whatever.  But do see it in the theater.  You're going to be glad you got the visuals up on the big screen.

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