Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Once On This Island

Year: 2016
Director: Ron Clements & John Musker
Cast: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement
Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Disney is in the midst of what some might prematurely term a Third Golden Age, but let us always remember that following the likes of Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons doesn’t leave newer entries with a high bar to clear. While I loved Tangled and Big Hero 6, Disney’s computer-animated output has never reached as consistent and satisfying a level as its two previous Golden Ages, which produced timeless works like Snow White, Pinocchio, and The Little Mermaid.

If you hold the much-ballyhooed Frozen up to the likes of Beauty and the Beast, the pitiful quasi-musical would melt in a microsecond. And while the box office-gobbling Zootopia is good, it’s an inconsistent allegory that hangs its hat on a Shakira track. So I urge you all to approach the highly praised Moana, Disney’s 56th theatrical animated feature, with a grain of salt, especially as it’s married to the other lavishly praised love object of 2016, Broadway songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is a terrific and talented person, but maybe not the second coming of Sondheim.

Forgive me theatre friends, for I have sinned. I have spoken against the church.

First, the plot. Moana is precede by the cute but inconsequential anatomy-based short “Inner Workings,” depicting the battle between an office drone’s head and heart (his job is a hilariously dour cross between the opening of The Producers and 1984 – the short has a killer electronic score and a cool mixed-medium design, but it’s no “Piper.”)

So, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), the leader of a secluded island village. Moana longs to be an explorer out in the ocean, but nobody is allowed beyond the reef surrounding the island. However, when a dark force begins draining the island of tis resources, she must embrace her destiny, sail past the reef, find the deserted demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), and persuade him to return the Heart of Te Fiti, a mystical stone imbued with the power of creation. She must deliver him to the spot where he stole it (which is guarded by the lava demon Te Ka) in order to halt the encroaching darkness that threatens her island.

It’s definitely an inconvenient truth.

So, I’m gonna make a bold assumption and guess that you’ve seen any Disney movie before. If so, you’ve likely already experienced some element of Moana, which scavenges bits and pieces from Mulan, Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid, Pixar’s Brave, and pretty much every entry in the canon, polishing and renaming them like a regular Scuttle. Failing to carve out new territory isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes Moana uses its Disney ancestry to buff out gaping holes in its character arcs, assuming you already know how these stories go, so they don’t have to put in the maximum effort to have them makes sense this time.

Also, I hope you love adorable sidekicks, because Moana is rotten with ‘em. Moana could start an adorable sidekick baseball team with its roster, including a comically tiny pig that the movie pretty much straight-up admits will eventually be slaughtered, ditto an idiotic chicken named Heihei (Alan Tudyk, for some reason), a magical animated tattoo, and even the Actual Literal Ocean. Not since Aladdin found himself saddled with a genie, a monkey, and a flying carpet has there been such a  surplus of wacky reaction shots and goofy hijinks. None of them are execrable, like Frozen’s Olaf, Prince of Darkness, but it’s an overdose of saccharine at times.

But the best thing about Pixar’s island-themed short “Lava” is that no animated island projects could possibly be worse that that, so Moana is in a very safe place.

Well, that probably wasn’t a strong start to a positive review, but let’s carry on and see if we can’t pick things back up again. Moana is a charming film, even if it’s a little childish at times. Hell, it is for kids, and they’re gonna adore the ever-loving sh*t out of it, so who am I to complain? Although Moana could definitely do better than a frightfully repulsive pun about “Tweeting” that is damnable for its anachronism, but mostly because it’s just the pits, even worse than when Frozen bald-facedly stole the “we finish each other’s sandwiches” line from Arrested Development.

Wow, Frozen is really taking a beating tonight. Sorry, folks! I like “Let It Go.”

But let’s talk about the reason anybody over the age of 14 was excited to see Moana: Lin-Manuel Miranda, who co-wrote the music with Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i. While I will never dispute that the musical orchestration itself is ever less than fantastic, his lyrics always seem to tend toward the descriptive rather than the poetic. Here’s an actual line from “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)”:
"I am the daughter of the village chief / We are descended from voyagers… I am Moana."
It ain’t exactly Shakespeare. However, a song where he really pulls out all the metaphorical stops is the villainous ditty “Shiny,” sung with gusto by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement. It’s a bombastic celebration of wicked wordplay that sparkles amidst many great pieces of music, including several tracks that are brave enough to include entire verses in native Pacific Islander languages, using the orchestration itself to carry the soaring emotional heft. I’m also partial to the opening verse of Moana’s “I Want” song, titled “How Far I’ll Go,” which is in a challenging minor key that I’ve literally never heard before from a children’s film. It’s a great soundtrack, except for maybe “You’re Welcome,” a solo number which Dwayne Johnson clumsily tumbles through like the Rock that is his namesake.

It’s a perfectly lovely film, even if it isn’t perfectly perfect. It has two charming leads, a solid theme about respecting the past and discovering who you are, and two perfectly horrifying monster designs that I guarantee some kid is having a nightmare about this very second. I have my problems with it (especially the introduction of the sentient ocean, which only deigns to help out Moana when the plot needs a deus ex machina), but I’ll definitely buy the soundtrack, which is the highest praise a Disney movie can ask for.

TL;DR: Moana is a serviceable animated adventure with a mostly great musical soundtrack.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1077


  1. "But let’s talk about the reason anybody over the age of 14 was excited to see Moana: Lin-Manuel Miranda, who co-wrote the music with Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i."

    Now, *I* was excited to see it because I'd been hoping hard these past few years for a Clements & Musker comeback, after the bad Treasure Planet and mediocre Princess and the Frog.

    Oh, you meant "mental age of 14." Carry on.

    (For my part, I just saw Moana again. Best film of the year, B, best film of the year. Can't imagine anything topping it.)

    1. I'm also finding it harder and harder to justify my Disney ranking: it really might be better than Aladdin after all. Not The Little Mermaid, never The Little Mermaid... well, maybe. Probably not, but I could see the argument.

    2. Whoa whoa whoa, man. Hold your horses. I completely accept your score, but you can't just come in here and say ANY film is better than The Little Mermaid so quickly. You're still in the honeymoon phase. Give it five years and then dare to flirt with such blasphemy. Better than Aladdin though? Yeah, probably.