Moana and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements
Well it certainly took Disney long enough to realize Dwayne Johnson was tailor made for kids movies, but then again he hasn’t had a very strong track record with those which is kind of baffling. His previous Disney outings include the Race to Witch Mountain Remake as well as The Game Plan (ugh…) and the only other animated film he’s done is that awful Planet 51 where he played the whitest of white dudes mugging his ass off. Hopefully being a part of one of Disney’s biggest films of the year is not only gonna prove that he’s perfect for this kind of material when used correctly, but may even open up new doors for better roles in better movies aimed at a younger audience. Not only that, but it’d be nice if all of our mythological films didn’t keep circling the Greek and Norse well and that we can start integrating other culture’s heroes and legends into the pop culture lexicon which seems to be this films primary goal; even more so than cashing in on People Magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Year! Is this movie yet another hit for the resurgent Walt Disney Animation Studios, or are we staring down the barrel of another Pocahontas level disappointment? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with the legend of Maui (Dwayne Johnson); world famous demigod and creator The People’s Elbow. The guy was basically the Hercules of this culture as he had super strength and did lots of heroic deeds throughout the Polynesian Islands with the help of his giant fish hook that let him turn into any creature he wanted and was also pretty good for bashing things. , Maui takes his heroic antics one step too far and manages to steal The Heart of Te Fiti (essentially Gaia) and is attacked by some bad mo-fo lava creature which ends with him losing his magic hook and getting stranded on an island; the heart of course getting lost forever in the ocean during the confrontation. Without her heart, Te Fiti can’t control the darkness or whatever that evil stuff is called, and over time it starts to spread to all the islands; killing the crops and making the seas very unfriendly to boats. One such island is the home of Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) who’s basically Jim Carrey from the Truman Show where all she wants is to go out exploring, but her father the chief (Temuera Morrison) doesn’t want her going out on the terrible ocean and instead trains her for a life of politics as she will inherit the throne at some point. That all changes however when the darkness finally reaches their shores, and Moana’s grandma (Rachel House) reveals that she’s been holding onto the Heart of Te Fiti (basically a glowing rock) for years now as the ocean chose her and has been waiting for Moana to be ready to take on a quest to find Maui and have him return The Heart to Te Fiti. Despite her parents’ protestations against her leaving the village, she must go out and carve her own path like any good Disney protagonist and sails the oceans in search of Maui. Will Moana eventually find the island that Maui was stranded on? Okay… well that’s a given, but will they be able to work together to return the heart to its rightful owner, or will they bicker the whole journey as any good Disney pairing does for the first two thirds of their movie? Who else is after the heart and just how far are they willing to go to get it? Will these pursuers give Maui PLENTY of chances to polish his ass kicking skills after such a long hiatus!?
Walt Disney Animation Studios has been on a rebound in recent years and have even started to rival Pixar in terms of quality. Moana unfortunately does fall short of that, but it’s probably the most ambitious film they’ve done in a while and I’ll give it lots of credit for that. However, the ambition in some areas is hampered by the rest of the movie that sticks way too closely to the Disney Hero’s Journey for the new stuff to work properly and instead we get a movie that doesn’t quite know exactly what it should be. If it had gone all the way by making this movie COMPLETELY unlike any other Disney film (the material would probably work best for a Homer style epic rather than a SAVE THE WORLD quest), then this could have been a classic. As it stands, it’s kind of a muddled mess that has some huge moments of originality in a sea of unoriginal Disney tropes. Still, those action scenes are BAD ASS!!
What is easily the biggest strength in this movie is the focus on a mythology that hasn’t been over-saturated in western culture (namely moving away from Greek and Norse) and the animator’s ability to realize a lot of these concepts in something resembling a grand fantasy film; though more often than not I was reminded of something like Inuyasha or Journey to the West with the dynamic Moana and Maui have, though those were ALSO inspired by mythology not quite as overdone in the west. You’ve got great concepts such as demigods, magic powers and artifacts, the land of monsters underneath the sea, and plenty of other ideas that I can only assume are part of Polynesian tradition and are very well realized here. The music as well is very strong, though I wasn’t as endeared to that as much as I was to the visuals and the fantastic locations, but it sounded authentic enough… even though I don’t know anything about Polynesian music. Okay, I’m probably the LAST person out there who can tell you how accurate this is to anything, but even if everything here is made up, it is at least REALLY well thought out and I’d love to see more from this world; though asking for Disney sequels is akin to a wish on a Monkey’s Paw.
Where the film starts to crumble a bit is when it fails to find a satisfying way to take this HUGE world of possibilities and whittle it down into a story about two people on a quest to save the world. This is why something such as the aforementioned Inuyasha was so successful in Manga and Anime as the premise works best in an episodic format where the goal at the end of the journey is just an excuse to explore the world and run into interesting characters. Now granted, even Disney wouldn’t put THIS many resources into a TV show or something like that, but by restricting everything this world has to offer into such a small amount of time is a serious detriment to the film itself. It’s not just that we don’t get enough cool places to visit; it’s also that everything ends up feeling truncated as they TRY To put as much as possible in here and can only do so much before they need to move on to the next thing. There are coconut pirates in here that show up for one scene and that’s it; despite the fact that they can seemingly locate the two at any time as they are drawn to the Heart of Te Fiti. We go to a land of monsters for maybe ten minutes, and all we really get to see of it is one cave and one crab who sings a badass song, but the whole thing felt like a Big Lipped Alligator Moment once it was done. Hell, there’s a part of this movie that goes for PSYCHIC FLASHBACKS (kinda like in Dark Dreams Don’t Die) where Moana learns about her tribes sea faring history just because we needed to justify showing those scenes and playing another song on the soundtrack.
Another problem with this movie that I was actually surprised turned out to be an issue is the animation. Similar to how the story finds an uneasy balance between big epic myth making and a tightly restrained hero’s journey, the animation manages to be the closest Disney has gotten to the Uncanny Valley which, if you don’t know, is the idea that closer something (originally thought of in terms of robotics but ABSOLUTELY applies to animation) gets to mimicking human characteristics; the more off putting it is as the flaws shine that much brighter. There’s just something about the character models here, the skin textures, and the animation that just make a lot of characters look off-putting. When character’s sing, you can see the muscles moving beneath the skin… yet they have HUGE mouths and eyes. You can see the individual detailing on a character’s face and hands, yet they have the body definite of a ken doll and DEFINITELY no nipples. Now the creature designs and the environments look absolutely stunning, and I would say that Maui avoids this problem as his character design is highly exaggerated (large frame and muscles, moving tattoos), but anytime a human is on screen, even Moana, there’s just something SLIGHTLY off and it was a huge distraction. They aren’t at the point where THIS level of detail works, and they should have gone a bit more stylized with all the characters instead of just Maui.
When this movie works, it works like crazy and basically carries the rest of the movie. The scene where Moana finally leaves the tribe is heartbreaking, though I’m an easy sell for anything that involves a grandma, and once Maui enters the picture the movie gets exponentially better. Dwayne Johnson may not be much of a singer (the guy only has one song), but he brings a lot of personality to the role and it seems like he was genuinely excited to play a character like this. He’s got great comedic timing, interesting abilities that make for exciting action scenes, and while his backstory feels pretty unoriginal, he does his damnedest to sell it to the audience. Auli’i Cravalho does fine as Moana even though the character seems to be built out of Disney Princess clichés, but she does manage to sell some of the sadder scenes in here which gives the movie some much weight to this simplistic story.
This is still a pretty great animated film, but then this hasn’t been the best year for these with the highlight probably being Zootopia which I wasn’t too crazy about either. Similar to that movie though, this one managed to make up for its shortcomings with an impressively realized world; the intricacies of a city built to varying scales in Zootopia being a highlight of the visuals there and the fresh take (at least for Western audiences) on mythological grandeur bringing so much life to the world here. It’s worth seeing in a theater for the non-human visual elements as well as Dwayne Johnson who is a national treasure, but it’s definitely got some stumbling blocks that I hope Disney can learn from, whether it’s the direction their animation style is going or how little their formula has grown in the last few decades. Hopefully they can make improvements in these areas for whatever film they’re planning on next and realize that Dwayne Johnson should just be in everything. Here’s hoping he shows up in Frozen 2 as a yeti or something!
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