Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Seafaring Quest For Identity Drives The Thoughtful And Fun Moana

Looks like Walt Disney Animation Studios recent hot streak continues unabated with their newest motion picture, Moana, which also manages to be the movie that brings back Disney Animation legends Ron Clements and John Musker to the directors chair for the first time since the 2009 feature The Princess And The Frog. This duo's been responsible for a couple of movies you may have heard of like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin and now, with Moana, they've probably made their best movie yet, mainly because its plot is better structured than the likes of The Little Mermaid and its also got a lead character who's actually as interesting as the sidekicks and world they inhabit unlike their 1997 effort Hercules.

After Disney Animation went into the realm of science-fiction and a fable-like tale of modern day prejudice with their last two motion pictures, Moana returns the studio to the sort of fairy tale musicals that made the studio famous in the first place. Unlike past forays into this type of storytelling, they're working from a completely original tale, meaning they have full reign to go hog wild on their own mythology that takes heavy inspiration from Polynesian culture. The result is something with a unique flavor of its own that manages to dress up elements that, on the surface, seem overly familiar in a spiffy new entertaining way.

For Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), life is a constant struggle. She's being internally pulled between her own desire to explore the open ocean and her families more cautious desires for her to remain on her own island home and take up the responsibilities of leading her people.  Just as she's resigned herself to living a secluded life on the island, various fruit on the island begun to turn a black-ish color and fish vanish from their normal spots. The reason for these tumultuous events may just have to do with a small green object called The Heart Of The Sea that must be returned to its proper place in order to restore balance to the ocean.

Moana has been chosen by the ocean itself for such a task, which only further complicates her search for an identity. The journey Moana undertakes as protagonist is one of the best examples of how Moana takes plot elements that could have come across as overly hackneyed with less than stellar execution and makes them fully emotionally resonant. To wit, Moana has the same "I want more from my life that's become routine" plight that Belle had in Beauty & The Beast, but Moana's internal struggle becomes fully its own thing by way of tying it into Moana specifically searching for her own identity. Her parents want her to stick around the island and take up their responsibilities, while the ocean itself has designated Moana to be some sort of Chosen One savior that she's extremely unsure she's qualified to live up to.

She's constantly being told who she is from the outside world, to the point where her own individuality feels suppressed. The quest she undertakes to try and restore The Heart Of The Sea is basically a coming-of-age tale told via the lens of familial tradition as well as fantasy-oriented swashbuckling action. It's an extremely well-handled character arc, especially since Moana's excellent "I Want" song How Far I'll Go is reprised at various turns in the plot to indicate where exactly she stands in her character progression, a neat and unique usage of that type of song found in many musicals.

On her quest of self-discovery, Moana seeks the help of the demigod Maui, played by Dwayne Johnson. In the spirit of Aladdin's Genie and Frozen's Olaf, Maui is intended to be the comedic relief character people leave the theater eager to buy merchandise of, and while Maui's got a handful of jokes that fall flat (there's a reference to "tweeting" that does not fit into the movies otherwise timeless aesthetic one bit), he's otherwise quite the fun character, complete with entertaining tattoos brought to life by hand-drawn animation (which are done by legendary Disney animator Eric Goldberg) and a strong vocal turn from Dwayne Johnson. Johnson brings his trademark charisma to the role of Maui and it's a good job on the part of both his performance and the writers that this character doesn't overwhelm the movie. He provides plenty of laughs, a great musical number and contributes to the overarching theme of searching for one's identity in Moana, but it's still the titular character's story, he doesn't take that away from her once he enters the movie.

It's plenty worth mentioning that this movie marks Lin-Manuel Miranda's first foray into the world of Disney-based cinema, a job he actually nabbed long before Hamilton became a Broadway phenomenon. He and Opetaia Foa'i are the ones in charge of the various musical numbers in the film, which are actually quite the fun batch of tunes. Dwayne Johnson's introductory musical number You're Welcome is a keeper and the aforementioned How Far I'll Go song really packs an emotional wallop.when paired with the well-realized character arc of Moana. And this movie rectifies a music-based gripe I had with Frozen and Tangled, which is that both movies lacked songs in their final scenes! Thankfully, that gets corrected in Moana in a lovely little reprisal of a song that proves how important it is to end these movies on a sweeping musical note.

Like I said at the start of this review, this is yet another winner for Walt Disney Animation Studios, whose creative rebound this decade after their early 21st century duds like Dinosaur and Atlantis: The Lost Empire is nothing short of astonishing. But hey, that's what happens when you focus on doing good stories that star interesting characters, both qualities Moana has in spades. This right here is an extremely fun and super thoughtful motion picture that manages to organically weave in both an extended homage to Mad Max: Fury Road and multiple musical numbers penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda. A combo like that pulled off this well is quite a feat in and of itself, plus you also get a thoughtful exploration of the hunt for one's own individual identity in Moana! How about that??

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