Friday, December 2, 2016

Oceanic Epic: 'Moana' is a Thrilling, Fun, Familiar Adventure

The big epic Broadway-style musical has returned with Walt Disney Animation Studios' 56th animated feature, Moana...

Warning, spoilers ahead...

How is it? If this past spring's Zootopia was the studio's grand new dish, Moana was the menu favorite... But this menu favorite was served up in a way that made its familiar elements feel fresh and fun again. No doubt about it, Moana is through-and-through a 90s Disney Renaissance film, and it is definitely a Ron Clements/John Musker film. Does it really do anything new? Not really. It's certainly more Little Mermaid than it is Treasure Planet. But is it executed very well? I think so.

Moana works off of Oceanic folklore to create a very cool, sometimes wild, and sometimes surreal fantasy adventure that only animation can do. Our main heroine loves the ocean, adventure, and doesn't quite want to fit into the mold that her society wants her to fit into. Long ago, demigod Maui stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti, a small green glowing stone. This unleashed hell on the islands, and little by little Moana's home island of Motunui is decaying. Crops are dying, the land is falling apart, soon it'll be curtains for her people...

Upon her grandmother's death, Moana sets sail to find Maui, intending to take him and the heart stone to where it belongs. Maui is hesitant, because of the dangers out there that want the stone, and because he doesn't have his legendary magical fish hook to fend for himself. What ensues is a buddy comedy on water, Moana and Maui really don't get along at first, not dissimilar to Tiana and Naveen's relationship in The Princess and the Frog. Little by little, as they work together, they begin to bond. While Moana is determined to undo the mistakes Maui has brought upon the islands, Maui is incredibly stubborn and quite arrogant. I really liked how these two worked off of each other, and it makes for some pretty good comedy too.

Also supplying some comedy is a stowaway rooster, Heihei. Dumber than the average chicken, Heihei is never overused in the way some Renaissance era sidekicks were. There was very little lowbrow humor, too, the tone was surprisingly pretty even for a 90s-style picture. Certainly more even than Frozen, in my humble opinion. The pacing was also pretty shocking too, the first act refreshingly takes it time while the middle feels a little bit wonky in places. Am I just too nuts about pacing? Rarely do I ever say something's so well-paced these days.

Visually, the film is indeed very nice. While I'm getting tired of photoreal computer animation, the lighting and color work in this film is still resplendent. Its most exciting parts, visually, used traditional animation along with other unexpected visual choices: Maui's tattoos, folk art-like cut-outs during the 'You're Welcome' song sequence, and the psychedelic visuals of Tamatoa's brilliantly over-the-top 'Shiny' number. I will be brutally honest though... I really wish this film was done in traditional animation.

This is not a dig on CGI or the sheer work that the Disney Animation team put into this movie's look, but it's a just a personal choice. I'm really beginning to sour on computer animation that's trying to be photoreal while trying to keep that unreal quality that makes animation so unique, but this is another rant for another day. The colors, character animation, lighting, and imagery still wows. The water too, just... Amazing...

What I particularly liked was how adventurous it was. Coconut-wearing pirate creatures pulling a Mad Max: Fury Ocean on our heroes, a whole seabed-like land full of weird monsters, a big battle with a lava monster, the ocean being a character, it was pretty imaginative and epic. I wasn't watching an animated Broadway musical set in a few key locations, it was like a Broadway musical and a sprawling trek, in the way something like Aladdin was. The cast is refreshingly small for this kind of narrative, but the faces we see are nonetheless entertaining and likable.

Bolstering all of this is the music from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina. The tunes follow the 90s beats, but are very enjoyable and leave you humming. 'Shiny' is a grade-A villain song, just our campy crustacean baddie basking in his collection. Moana's 'I Want' song is good stuff, as is the epic 'We Know The Way', some of the more emotional ones in the latter part of the middle third are sharp. Moana's grandmother returns in spiritual form to sing her the song of the ancestors, the scenes concerning Moana's grandmother in particular really hit home for me, having lost my grandmother a few years back, the sequence in question almost mirrored how it happened. Her reunion with her granddaughter is one of the film's most poignant moments.

Moana is in every way a work of Disney animated comfort food. It has the big songs, it has the spunky heroine who wants more, the music, the occasional over-the-top fun, a memorable baddie, some sadness, and a good touch of comedy. For me, this balanced all of the elements better than many of the Renaissance films did. At the same time, it bucked a few trends from that era. Our big epic battle with the lava witch isn't quite what one might think, there's really no towering bad guy to stop.

Tamatoa is a temporary monster that they have to trick, while the lava witch Te Ka is an enraged Te Fiti who needs her heart back. Really, most of the conflict is Maui's doing, and he's cocky to boot. Thankfully there are no twist villains either, because that could've been a mistake and would've felt quite redundant. The comic relief sidekick isn't overbearing or noisy, nor does this fowl in question interrupt deeper moments. In fact, Moana puts him in a pot and locks it in the boat's compartment, he stays put for a little while!

While not a particularly mind-blowing work, Moana is more than a pleasant diversion. It certainly does have things on its mind, and the telling of them is quite subtle. One of them I liked is Maui's initial search for more power, resulting in the stealing of the heart-stone. Self-discovery and confidence are also the name of the game too, and even a little dash of empathy. The film is not a joke-a-thon matinee or Redbox rental, and to be fair, none of the Disney animated films made under John Lasseter's watch have been just that. Moana basically continues the winning streak without anything really new to bring to the table. It certainly isn't the ambitious and wild Zootopia, nor is it the exciting and sprawling Wreck-It Ralph, but everything in it coagulates so well. Again, comfort food, but prepared with passion.

Soooo, what about our short film?

Inner Workings is a zippier Reason and Emotion with some dashes of Team Emeryville's recent mind movie, and in terms of the animation and directing, it's a lot of fun. As I've said before, I absolutely love the off-kilter style they went for, and the presentation itself compliments this style. If Disney Animation is going to stick with CGI, they might as well move away from whatever style they're using and go for looks like this, but that's also another ramble for another day. The 80s vibe was very cool, and there was some good humor in it, too. Some jokes were stretched a little thin, and perhaps the brain was a little too much of a worrywart, but it was overall very enjoyable and a real visual treat.

Quite the double-bill, and the perfect capper to Walt Disney Animation Studios' great year. Two new films, both great, both successful, I say we animation fans got the goods.

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