The Disney Studio is one that continues to surprise. With the craze going on taking animated classics and adapting them to live action or photo-realistic movies, it would be a logical conclusion that the Disney studio would leave the computer animated films to Pixar. However, everything Disney has become was born out of animation, and it’s a good thing that the studio has chosen to keep that vision alive.
One of Disney’s hallmarks with animated films from the last decade or so has been their efforts to speak to a specific culture. In 1998 they released a film about the Chinese heroine Mulan, and even further back in 1995 there was Pocahontas, Disney’s attempt to give spotlight to the Native American Indians back in the days of the early American settlers. Even more recently there was the Nordic Frozen, and just a couple of years earlier there was a beautifully animated film about the wonderful culture that is New Orleans in The Princess and the Frog. Now the studio has returned with a film that speaks to the Polynesian people, their beliefs and mythology, as well as their culture, with a movie titled Moana.
The plot is simple. A young girl must go on a journey to save her people. Along the way she receives help from a powerful ally, but more importantly, discovers her true self and redeems her people from being a stagnant culture to a thriving one.
Sound familiar? It is. This is all themes and variations. Our hero Moana could easily be Merida from the Disney/Pixar 2012 film Brave, and the rescue with the powerful ally could be Aladdin with his genie. Even the redemption of the people could be taken from the 2001 animated sci-fi film (and box office underperformer) Atlantis: The Lost Empire. There are even elements from Frozen, as well as a climactic scene involving a fire god that was a total retelling of “The Firebird” from Fantasia 2000. Still, even with all of this reused material, Disney finds a way to give their movies their own unique resonance, starting with the cast. Keeping with the Polynesian feel Disney made deliberate efforts at casting voice actors true to the culture. Auli’i Cravalho voices Young Moana in this breakout debut. In addition to breathing acting life to the animated character she also has a singing voice that could very well catapult her into the recording industry, or at least to musical theater. Moana’s father, Chief Tui, is given life by Temuera Morrison (Abin Sur in Green Lantern), Moana’s extremely wise and somewhat eccentric grandmother is beautifully portrayed by Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), and of course the part that everyone has been anxious to hear, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays the demi-god Maui, who also proves that he has some excellent singing chops when the situation calls for it!
One of the drawbacks in this film is the pacing. Sadly this is probably Disney’s greatest vulnerability. Many of their films stopped shy of being great due to this problem where they cram too much storytelling into a short period of time. Think of a piece of music that is sped up during playback in order to fit within a specified allotted time. That’s what Moana is most guilty of. Characters need to be developed, but the plot has to move forward, so instead of taking elements out in order to give breadth to the character and story development, the studio pushes it in an almost sped up manner. Lines and reactions are crammed together preventing the audience from appreciating what is being delivered on the screen. This creates scenes that border on breathless. Even when the film centers on Maui and Moana, there is still so much character development needed to be done that the scenes feel as if we are racing through them just so that the animators and story tellers can spend adequate enough time on what will be the big conflict of the film. This is an all too familiar shortcoming from the Disney studio, which sadly takes away from the film. An animated movie can be as artistic and beautiful as possible, but if the story suffers then the entire movie suffers. Even with John Lasseter serving as Executive Producer, the Disney studio could learn a thing or two from the geniuses over at Pixar, who have raised both animation and story telling to an all-new level. Even with that, this film is something of a disappointment in that area because the directors are Clements and Musker, whose work on such classics as Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, as well as The Little Mermaid would suggest that they are more than adequately skilled in this area, and yet the film falls short.
With all of that, the good points about this movie are plentiful. From the beginning the animation is absolutely gorgeous. The studio created a film where the ocean and some of the ocean life are animated to a level never seen before, but not to the point of becoming photo-realistic, which would have actually taken away from the “animated feel” the studio was trying to create. While I’m also not a big fan of the “let’s have a different song in the film ever 7 to 10 minutes” idea, almost all of the music and songs in this film were quite beautiful. The majority of them have a very culturally polished sound to them, and Maui’s big number sounds like it could have come from Aladdin where Genie sings “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me.” However perhaps there could have been fewer songs in order to give plenty of enough time to the story narrative without having to race through it. Nonetheless, the songs were very catchy, and the incidental music was beautiful.
Lastly, Disney has perfected the art of pulling at one’s own heartstrings. Without becoming overly maudlin, through symbolism they were able to create such powerfully emotional moments that caused many adults in the theater to take their 3D glasses off and wipe away their tears. Through imagery they skillfully deliver the emotional truthfulness in many of the scenes that are required in this film. If only Disney could have done that with the entire film then it would have probably gone down as a present day classic. Nonetheless, what was given is a hallmark of Disney and what that studio can create.
Despite its shortcomings, Moana is a truly beautiful film and is worthy of being a part of the Disney canon. The character of Moana herself may not qualify as a Disney princess, but she has all of the qualities that make her Disney royalty. Moana is a lovely film with enchanting animation, and plenty of wonderful scenes that can appeal to family members of all ages (another hallmark of Disney films).
I give it 4 out of 5 Canoe Oars.
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