At this point, with all the soft splits Disney’s animation division has endured, I’m a little confused as to who makes what and if those who are making it are the talented ones or the cheesy ones. But hey, The Rock is funny!
Moana, directed by a handful of people, is a beautiful, at times psychedelic film shackled by the traditions of the Disney “princess movies.” The film follows Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), an aspiring chieftain whose wild thoughts about “going beyond the reef” are squelched time and time again by her overbearing father. But when the “darkness” comes, brought on by the demi-god Maui’s (Dwayne Johnson) stealing of super goddess/island Te Fiti’s heart, Moana must disobey her father’s strict rules and set out, like her people before her, to find Maui, return the stone, and fight a giant lava monster with nothing but a bobble-eyed chicken to protect her. It’s like if The Odyssey was told through the eyes of the Pacific-Islander’s pantheon of gods, monsters and realms. And when it hews close to the traditions of the Pacific-Island tribes, the film is, simply put, amazing. Moana, after discovering and convincing Maui (an unrepentant selfish trickster who’s only out for himself) to join her, journeys through the Pacific Ocean’s wonders, each stranger and more amazing than the last. They’re attacked by a group of coconut pirates with a ship that grows and shrinks through a series of pulleys. They enter the Realm of Monsters to steal an object of great importance from Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) – a giant crab who’s back is adorned with the treasures he’s stolen for himself. These aspects, and the solid pairing of Johnson and Cravalho, speak of a new step forward for classic Disney animation. One that’s unchained from the typical romanticized worlds Disney has been inhabiting for, well, nearly ever. Yet, the film never finds its way entirely outside of the boundaries of Disney’s hindering tropes. There is, of course, songs and though there a couple memorable ones (Tamatoa’s Shiny is a standout and I found myself tearing up anytime Moana started singing How Far I’ll Go), a lot of them, including Dwayne Johnson’s tone-deaf You’re Welcome, fall particularly flat. The opening song, an ensemble sing-along, is the most egregious, a sort of homage to Bonjour from Beauty and The Beast, but this time featuring smiling Pacific-Islanders crooning about how great their lives are, and how happy they are to work as a team. It clearly isn’t intended this way, but the simplification of the Pacific-Islanders society borders on stereotype, regardless of how well researched that stereotype is. But lame songs are not the film’s downfall, instead it’s the need to strike out on a path already well-trod by traditional Disney films. This is, very much so, the story we’ve seen in all of the famous Disney productions – a character must endure the trials of an enormous test while finding out just who she really is. It’s a classic yarn, sure, but Moana sticks so closely to the blueprint, that the odder, more enjoyable elements at play, get smothered. It almost feels like two films, as if Disney wanted to show the beautiful intricacies of Pacific-Islander culture, but only if it was bordered with the generic Disney structure pre-acknowledged to work well with an audience. The animation is stunning (the water work itself deserves awards) and – once again – in the more “out-there” scenes, which push what we’ve come to accept as a Disney film (the 2-D hybrid work on Tamatoa’s face is amazing). But it’s Moana where the animation fails. She looks, aside from a slightly wider nose and a light brown skin tone, like a white girl, but not just any white girl, one with creepy doll eyes that seem to move separately from the rest of facial musculature. It’s a creepy effect that sets a well-written, strong female character, somewhere along the line of CG American Girl dolls. The film is enjoyable though, an easily digested bit of animation that will make you laugh and ooh and ahh at the wonders of its design. But it’s almost a tease, as if Disney is striving to make change in its most cherished sandbox, but unable to let fully go yet. Keep at it Disney, you’re moving in the right direction.
One Last Thought:
Remember The Little Mermaid and King Triton and how he was just a total dick that smashed all Ariel’s pretty things and everyone was like, “Damn girl, underwater kings ain’t to be fucked with.” It seems like that sort of switch-first parenting has been expelled from Disney’s writing, as Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) is the authority figure you’ve come to expect, but without the fire and brimstone. He just wants his daughter to be safe. Welcome to 2016 everyone, nothing has changed at all.