Moana - Review: An ocean of delights
Sometimes it’s harder than it should be but I firmly don’t believe in being negative or dismissive towards any fandoms. I’m not saying that I like them all, far from it, but a fandom in any form should never be a bad thing because bringing people together in collective love and adoration of something is awesome any way you slice it. Whether it’s for a film franchise, a sports team, a music genre...anything at all, if it can make strangers into friends it makes the world better place. Yet some fandoms do occasionally frustrate me. These are the mega-fandoms that become so all-engulfing they seem to suffocate others without always deserving their dominating popularity. Right now, the biggest case for me is Frozen. It’s an enjoyable film with some spectacular songs and if it makes people happy, then that’s great.... but now, it’s mega fandom status has people calling it Disney’s greatest which we have to be honest, it isn’t; not by a long way, which implies other films are being unfairly overlooked because people would rather re-watch Frozen than give them a chance. Now, Disney has a new film out, Moana. It may well spawn its own mega fandom..... but that won’t frustrate me at all because this island adventure is utterly stunning.
As a blight comes to her island home, Moana (Auli'i Cravalho – debut) the chief’s daughter is chosen by the ocean itself to find the lost Demi-Gog Maui (Dwayne Johnson – all the franchises) so that they can together return the heart of the ocean to the mother island and stop the blight.
Right from the start, this film is mesmerizingly beautiful in its setting from vast ocean and tropical islands filling the scenery to Polynesian culture of Moana’s village and the mythology based elements of the story. There has been a gargantuan amount of effort put into the kind of background details most would take for granted which brings everything to the foreground drawing your gaze to every tree and every drop of the ocean. It’s a staggering visual achievement and when that combines with some great storytelling the results are nothing short of magic. One early scene of a toddler Moana making friends with the ocean is nothing short of heart-melting. The storytelling and visuals continually combine well into a pacey episodic adventure. That’s nothing new for an animated feature (it’s almost the modern normality) but it’s still done outstandingly as each new location and mini adventure brings something new and imaginative to the table like a Waterworld-style horde of coconut pirates to a giant hording crab monster glowing in florescent neons (and hilariously voiced by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) or the climatic collosal lava demon Te Kā. Then there’s Maui’s animated body tattoos, traditionally hand animated against the CG and frequently scene stealing in their simplistic delights.
Moana is incredibly endearing as hero through a combination of vibrant energy and unselfish motives, much more so than a Meridah or Anna in her place, instead sitting firmly alongside Mulan and Rapunzel at the top. Disney has thankfully resisted their traditionally urge to show a heroine making really dumb decisions and allow her to be smart and resourceful. Instead her adversity comes from inexperience (like being on a boat without knowing how to sail) which not only makes complete, sense it makes it genuinely rewarding to see her grow and develop on screen. In fact, she’s arguably the most fully fleshed-out character in any Disney animation for an entire generation! Neither is there a pointless romantic subplot thrown in to make her more girly. In fact, there’s not a single mention of a love interest in the entire film as the story focuses on Moana discovering herself.
Dwayne Johnson’s Maui is a great fun addition to the film but oddly his introduction sees the tide going out for the film’s only dry section as the second act begins. Everything about the first part is perfectly paced as it introduces Moana, her island and family before setting her off on her voyage. Its two featured songs are not only wonderful but feel coherent and enhancing to the story. Then Johnson’s Maui shows up, cracks some so-so jokes (“When you write with a bird it’s called Tweeting”) and almost immediately starts a “singing for the hell of it” musical number. It’s a real shame because it utterly drains the wave of momentum Moana was expectedly riding. All of sudden, things stop feeling special and much more Disney by numbers. In fact, Maui’s aforementioned book number is little more than a b-side version of Aladdin’s “Friend Like Me”(RIP, Robin Williams). Thankfully, things do recover fairly quickly once the lead duo gets some time to develop their dynamic and quickly become a very enjoyable on screen pairing. Although there are moments when the entertainment slips from its sails, it never hits a similar rut, maintaining a high standard right to the end.
Like many of Disney & Pixars most acclaimed works, Moana does not feel like a comedy orientated crammed in gags affair yet still manages to be very funny. The humour is effectively broad too with full family. Kids (and immature adults like me) will bust a gut at the antics of Heihei the incomprehensibly dumb rooster (squawked by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk, of all people) but there’s plenty of wit and dialogue based laughs for those wanting more than just slapstick. There are even a few brilliant meta-Disney jokes, like Maui remarking that wearing a dress and having an animal sidekick makes Moana a princess whether she likes it or not it.
Kubo and the Two Strings already had animated film of the year in the bag and sealed watertight; it was never in doubt. Yet Moana forms the opposite side of Kubo’s coin by being about as good as a big budget/blockbuster animation will get in 2016. I liked Finding Dory but I enjoyed Moana a lot more for its ambition and imagination. This could so easily have been a tropical set but generic Disney princess affair it’s not. It’s a visual spectacle that delivers wonder with no shortage of heart, and the music is incredible (including contributions by Broadway golden goose Lin-Manuel Miranda). If you thought December was only about Star Wars, think again because Moana is a must sea.