Monday, December 05, 2016

'Moana' Is Formulaic but Terrific

In the past few years, it seems that Disney (and its subsidiary Pixar) has figured out making anime films down to a science.  I won’t be surprised if they are literally using an actual “x-and-y” equation when making these animated films.  Like they’re translating all required production details into mathematical expressions, then input them into a special formula which then spurts the blueprint of a guaranteed successful, quality product.  They send it to production, and – voila! – another instant hit.  At this point, it seems impossible for Disney to make a bad or even mediocre animated film; a sure-fire above average animated film, at least, is to be expected.

Thus, coming into Moana, I just knew it was going to be great.  And indeed, it is.
Set on the backdrop of Polynesian culture and mythology, Moana focuses on a daring teenager named Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) who has always felt strongly drawn to the ocean.  However, her overprotective father, Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), firmly forbids her to go sailing, insisting that the island provides everything they need.  Instead, he constantly urges her to focus on preparing for succeeding him as leader of their village.

But one day, to save her people, Moana – accompanied by her stowaway pet chicken, Heihei (Alan Tudyk) – has to go sail across the ocean.  She seeks the help of the demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), and together, they undergo a perilous adventure to stop a consuming darkness from devastating the islands, and restore life and vitality to them.  Along the way, Moana learns how to be a master wayfinder while Maui finds the opportunity to redeem himself from a millennia-old offense.
Moana is a fantastic animated musical film.  It’s visually luscious.  The aesthetics of its setting are lush and vivacious, and the overall look of its animation is just stunning.  It has a solid set of songs – kudos to rising star Lin-Manuel Miranda and his collaborators – though it isn’t as emphatically unforgettable as those from Frozen and (especially) the 90’s classics.

Storytelling-wise, Moana is basically your usual Disney animated feature.  It has a plot structure and story elements that we have seen multitude of times in various forms from other Disney movies.   But what’s great about Disney is they are perfectly capable of avoiding making such movie feel mechanical and unpleasantly familiar despite being inherently formulaic.  And it’s really true with Moana.  It has this overall sense of freshness.
As far as flaws go, I only found minimal things.  There are parts that I felt weren’t edited as well as they could have been.  It also was unfortunately unable to avoid some hackneyed tropes that I kind of disliked (e.g. that obvious dream sequence made me groan).  But again, these were only minimal flaws that supplied some minor, brief annoyances.

All in all, I had a great time with Moana, though I don’t think it’s going to be considered one of Disney’s masterpieces.  It’s definitely not as good as Zootopia, Disney’s first animated film of this year, which felt far more thoughtful and seamless to me.  But, on its own, Moana is a genuinely terrific film.

Miscellaneous musings (with minor spoilers):
  • The short film Inner Workings, which was shown before Moana, is hilarious.  The running gag about the brain thinking of the man eventually dying is gold.
  • I thought baby Dory was the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen in an animated film.  But baby Moana is just cuteness overload.
  • Heihei is a delightful dumbass.  And making him a chicken just made the whole idea of this character more ridiculous.  There’s something shallowly stupid about its whole comedic setup, but I didn’t care.  I still laughed all the way.
  • I wish Moana’s pet pig, like Heihei, also accompanied her, per the movie poster’s implication.
  • I originally thought that Taika Waititi wrote the screenplay of Moana.  I was wrong.  Apparently, he only did the initial draft.  He didn’t even receive writing credits.
  • The Rock continues his winning, prolific streak of movies.  Being a long-time fan, right from his days as a wrestler, listening to him sing in a Disney animated musical film was an awesome feeling.  At this point, he has kind of done everything already as an actor.  The only thing probably missing in his resume is doing a role that will net him award considerations.
  • “How Far I’ll Go” isn’t as powerful and catchy as “Let It Go”, but the stirring “I Am Moana” scene gave me goosebumps.

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