Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review: "Moana" is One of the Most Fun Films of 2016

Scene from Moana
With each passing year, it becomes more difficult for Disney to keep making new iconic princesses. This is in part because of the limited supply of fairy tales that the studio has pulled from over close to a century. It makes sense then that they hit the high seas to explore South Pacific folklore in Moana: their latest musical that also features the likes of Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, and reliable Disney co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin among others). By exploring a new subject matter, Disney has managed to open up their potential while delivering one of their most electric stories of the 21st century so far. With heart and humor, Moana is another gem from the studio known for going above and beyond. So say hello to one of the best Disney animated films and prepare to have a new soundtrack stuck in your head for awhile. Moana is great.

For those skeptical of Disney's latest, just wait until after the prologue. While it effectively sets up the story, it is the opening song "Where You Are." It's a whirlwind of exposition, montage animation, and the proverbial Disney magic. Miranda (with collaboration from Mark Mancini and Te Vaka) knows his way around a melody and makes the most of it. The song creates a sense of community and identity. It also captures Moana's (Auli'i Cravalho) restless desire to escape her quaint little island and explore. This is in part because Maui (Dwayne Johnson) lifted a curse that is plaguing every island in the South Pacific. Even then, the song manages to cover plot, atmosphere, and stylistic drive in a matter of three minutes. This is an impeccable gift often lost in contemporary cinema, but what immediately makes this musical thrive. Every song has purpose, and the good news is that most are masterful ear worms.

If there is one disconcerting factor, it's that Disney felt the need to add subtext about their legacy of princesses. While their biggest selling tool, they have come under fire for being a regressive ideal for women. This is clear repeatedly through Moana's reluctance to be a princess. She even says it once. The film is an effective story, but deconstructing the Disney princess mythology is not its strong suit. What it's best at is giving Moana agency and the ability to be her own hero with a conflicting journey. Maui is a chauvinist male sidekick who turns the dynamic into adorable sibling rivalry. The truth is that Moana is one of the most exciting and authentic Disney characters in years, at times recalling Pocahontas and Mulan in her bravery and agricultural instinct. To call her the anti-princess is an insult. Disney should be proud to have Moana on their team.

While lacking the hand drawn beauty that may have made this fit easily into the studio's amazing run of films in the 1990's, the CG animation has a gorgeous look to everything. The water is mesmerizing to look at while each new character is giving striking appearances. They etch into the viewers brain as they enter a world of awe that Disney hasn't done in quite some time. Sure, there's comical animals (the awkward chicken Heihei), but there's also coconut shaped villains named Kakamora who make for a great Waterwold-esque sequence midway through the movie. Most of all, the film has a sense of discovery and optimism that is sorely missing nowadays. 

Moana is one of those films that work despite feeling familiar. Longtime fans will be able to find thematic connections to almost every prior Disney animated film. Though the question is: Is that a bad thing if it works? It's in streamlining the technique that Moana manages to become more engaging. By following a simple hero's journey tale with two delightful characters, the film never feels worried about thematic overhauls or a need to appease intellectual and progressive crowds. It's smart under its surface, but it never stops being fun first and foremost. Much like the opening song finds admiration in life on the island, the following minutes of the film create new wonder in the world around them. It's the closest that the film has to a fourth wall-breaking metaphor, asking the audience to see the world in new and beautiful ways.

For Oscar pundits, Moana is also a relief of some sort, as it delivers a handful of nomination-worthy songs that will get Miranda that EGOT status in less than a few months. Much like Elton John & Tim Rice, or Phil Collins, he is one of those indelible musical partnerships that produced a sense of greatness and cements him in family film history. "How Far I'll Go" seems poised to win the category on sheer craft and performance. The upbeat song that sets up the journey to come is beautiful and whose melody waves through the optimism like the ocean coming to shore. While all seven of these songs are likely to become household hits within a decade, it's hard to find one that compares to the soaring majesty of "How Far I'll Go." Even then, the soundtrack has plenty of personality (especially on "You're Welcome" and "Shiny") and never falls into pretentious balladry. Here's fingers crossed that Miranda never stops working with Disney on creating the next wave of Disney songbook masterpieces. He may be no Alan Menken yet, but give him time.

Moana is, to put it simply, a great film that also serves as a reminder that movie musicals have the power to be awe-inspiring cinema. For any of its faults, its assured nature and effective third act all make for a film that shows the future of Disney and their princess movement. Moana the character is so endearing immediately and transcends racial barriers without falling into controversial whitewashing. Here's hoping that she becomes one of the studio's most beloved in years to come. For now, enjoy the film in theaters while you can. Learn to love the power of great animation, music, and storytelling from the studio that sometimes delivers perfection. It may be a little scrappy and silly, but there's no denying that it's probably one of the most fun movies of 2016 by far. 

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