Thursday, 20 April 2017

Moana (2016)

Maui and Moana conquer the seas in this wonderfully fun Disney yarn

Director: Ron Clements, John Musker
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Rachel House (Tala), Temuera Morrison (Tui), Jermaine Clement (Tamatoa), Nichole Scherzinger (Sina), Alan Tudyk (Hei-Hei)

Once upon a time, the demi-God Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti, in order to give it to humanity. But he was attacked by the lava demon Te Kā and lost the heart and his magical fishhook. A thousand years later, Moana (Auli’I Cravalho), the daughter of the chief of her small island, grows to be a teenager who dreams of exploring beyond the reef. When her island’s crops start to fail, the Ocean chooses her to leave the island to find Maui and restore Te Fiti’s heart, in order to restore health to the world.

Moana is a charming, engaging and witty Disney movie, with strong, well-drawn characters, that immerses itself in its Polynesian mythology setting. What works about it – and what always puts Disney above its competitors – is that the film is interested in telling a story about characters who have real concerns and depth. Compare it to other, more stunted, “joke”-focused animations, produced by companies like Dreamworks, to see how far above those films it is. There are very few jokes here that will date (perhaps one about tweeting) – instead it’s a film that recognises its content for the adults doesn’t need to be sly film references or cheeky gags: a strong plot and engaging characters will entertain all generations.

One of the reasons the movie works so well is because Moana herself is a sympathetic, engaging heroine with dreams and aspirations, but who is still deeply respectful of her background. She’s not a rebellious teen, but someone who wants to improve the world around her, and is beautifully voiced by Cravalho. As such, she’s not only a great role model (take note parents!), but someone you end up totally rooting for. It also helps that she has a wonderful chemistry with Maui (very well voiced by a charmingly sparkling Johnson) – the film quietly subverts the expected Mentor/Pupil relationship between the two, as each teaches the other lessons both practical and spiritual. 

Moana learns many of the lessons Disney picked up from Frozen. Like that film, it follows a free-spirited, independent-minded young woman not defined by a romantic interest. Its focus is on the lead overcoming a task to save her world. And it is built around an extremely catchy, very good song. How Far I’ll Go, Moana’s signature song (refrains of which are built into many of the other songs), is a sensational, powerful and tear-prickling power ballad about being yourself and following your own heart. It is remarkably easy to sing along with and carries a great message. It’s also got a brilliant popular appeal – I was stunned to see the YouTube video of it has over 141 million hits (would that this site had so many). Many of the other songs are similarly excellent, especially the extremely hummable You’re Welcome (the songs are brilliantly composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’I and Mark Mancina).

Its visuals are outstanding, the animation terrific. I also really liked the way Clements and Musker embraced the strengths of silent characters, and the expressiveness animation can bring to characters. The Ocean, a clear character here who influences events, is nothing more than a shaped concentrated wave with no features, but has an expressiveness that makes it one of the wittiest characters in the film (memories of the carpet from Aladdin spring to mind). Similarly, the silent, dim-witted chicken Hei-Hei supplies many of the film’s laugh-out-loud moments. Maui’s body tattoos (wonderfully illustrated), moving and communicating silently with Maui throughout the movie, are terrifically innovative and feel unique.

Moana has a looseness and coolness to it that makes it an enjoyable, perfect viewing for a Saturday night. The storytelling is brilliantly done and the final confrontations are shot with a daring vibrancy that betters many action films. Clements and Musker have a mastery of the material that creates a gripping and involving story and characters. In many ways, it doesn’t do anything too unique or different from past Disney movies, but it tells the story with such charm and imagination that you'll get totally wrapped up in it.

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