Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Film Review: Moana (2016)

Halfway through Moana, the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) derisively calls the eponymous character (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) "princess". She says that she isn't a princess, she's the daughter of a chief, and while Maui isn't swayed by the distinction, it's an important one to Moana - it's the latest example of man trying to define who she is, and in doing so underestimating her - but also for the film around her. "Princess" comes laden with certain expectations about responsibilities, behaviours, and decorum, just as the notion of a "Disney Princess" is associated with a certain kind of storytelling.

The Disney formula is well-represented by the film, which follows the fantastical, musical quest blueprint laid out by directors Ron Clements and John Musker in their earlier additions to the Disney canon, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Moana sets out from her village on the Polynesian island of Motunui, against the wishes of her parents, when an ancient curse threatens to kill all life on their island, dooming their people. Moana travels across the ocean in search of Maui so that he can return the Heart of Te Fiti, a small stone which he stole from an island goddess, inadvertently releasing the deadly curse. Before they can return the stone, however, they need to retrieve Maui's magic fishhook, which he lost as he tried to escape with the Heart of Te Fiti.

Although the Polynesian influences and imagery make Moana look distinct from previous Disney efforts, they surround a framework which is very familiar to the studio's devotees. The songs, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa'i, are typical of this synthesis between new inspiration and old form; the songs incorporate Tokelauan lyrics, but musically they have are the same soaring, anthemic texture that marks the best Disney musicals. (The one exception being "Shiny", a Bowie-esque pop song sung by a giant crab monster voiced by Jemaine Clement. It's a treat for Flight of the Conchords fans, but also the only song that feels inessential.) Even though Moana looks better than any Disney CG film (or any CG film, period) ever has, with a warmth and depth to its Pacific Island locations, its rhythms are classic Disney.

Moana herself fits into the fiercely independent dreamer mold of characters like Belle, Aladdin and Mulan, while her hapless rooster Heihei is the latest in a long line of animal companions, albeit an especially dumb example considering that he spends much of the film walking into or off things. Cravalho is perfect in the role, bringing the right mix of righteousness and stubbornness for a character who is determined to fulfill her destiny, while also being uncertain about her place in the world, all of which she manages to imbue into the movie's 'I Want' song "How Far I'll Go". That's a lot to convey for a newcomer, and she delivers it flawlessly.

Maui, meanwhile, feels like a less aggressively self-aware version of Aladdin's Genie, with Johnson shining as an arrogant yet needy demigod obsessed with committing great acts on behalf of humanity, all of which are recorded on his body in the form of mystical, occasionally sentient tattoos. His introductory song, "You're Welcome", in addition to offering a quick rundown of some of the legends surrounding Maui - lifting up the sky, restraining the sun, and dragging islands out of the sea, to name but a few - is the kind of funny, exuberant number that will be an absolute showstopper if Moana ever follows previous Disney hits to Broadway.

While Moana follows the Disney playbook and executes it flawlessly, some of its most striking moments come from the ways in which it breaks with tradition. In its lack of a love interest or antagonist for Moana, not to mention its subtle environmental themes, the film is as much indebted to the work of Studio Ghibli or Laika as the Disney canon. The Ghibli influence comes through especially strongly during its final act, as well as during a thrilling mid-film sequence in which Moana and Maui are menaced by pirates called Kakamora. Though the sequence itself pays homage to Mad Max: Fury Road, complete with furious drum beats and characters jumping from ship to ship using spears and ropes, the Kakamora's diminutive stature and coconut armor make them look like less benign versions of the Kodama from Princess Mononoke.

Despite its epic scope, life-or-death stakes, and a battle between a shapeshifting trickster god and a mountain-sized lava monster, Moana is a warm, gentle fantasy. It's a balm for an exhausted world, and, despite taking place in the distant past, a promise for the future. Moana's journey starts when she discovers that her people, who for generations have remained on the same island for fear of what lies beyond, started out as explorers and voyagers. It's through overcoming a fear of the unknown that Moana is able to go on her quest, and ultimately why she succeeds. Her story is one of better angels prevailing, and a belief that risks are worth taking. After what can only be described as a dreadful year, a film which argues for hope and optimism in the face of creeping darkness feels right.

Grade: A-