MOANA

Oh, Walt Disney Studios. You’re just the machine that keeps on giving… and growing. Going strong for nearly a century now, you’ve shaped the childhoods of multiple generations over countless features, shorts, shows, books, video games, board games, toys, blankets, and every other bit of merchandising imaginable. People seem to fall into two camps: you either really love Disney, or you can’t stand it. I guess I fall somewhere in between. I just think they’ve made a lot of really good films and I enjoyed a lot of them growing up. The thing is, as I’ve grown and matured, the films have stayed the same. I’m not saying I’m expecting these films to be made for adults, but when you get pretty much the same thing every time, my investment slightly wanes.

In Ancient Polynesia, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the young, impetuous daughter of an island chieftain. Bored with her routine island life and cultural responsibilities, all she wants to do is set out into the open sea. As the environment around them begins to decay, Moana takes it upon herself to sail out to the ocean and find the fabled demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who may have the power to restore balance to the world. With an adventurous attitude, a small wooden sailboat, and a braindead rooster in tow, Moana sets out to not only save her people, but prove herself as a strong, independent woman.

What struck me most about this film was how amazingly gorgeous the animation was. I use the word amazing in the literal sense, too. I was absolutely blown away by the detail and clarity of the deep blue ocean, the lush scenery of the islands and jungles within, and the hypnotically realistic hair effects. The Ancient Polynesian culture is beautifully captured, emphasizing the gorgeous animation even more, making the scenery a character in and of itself. I’m not sure if it was the projection of my theater (it was brand new, so I assume it’s 4K), but this is without a doubt the most stunning 3D computer animated film I’ve ever seen. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve actually been in awe from computer animation. There are a lot of folks lamenting about the demise of 2D animation, but that’s just what happens as technology advances. If animated films continue to look even half as great as this, and eventually better, I’m totally fine with that.

While the animation was stellar, everything else fell short. Nearly all Disney films follow a formula, usually to their detriment. This studio has been doing this for nearly 80 years and they know what their fans like, especially when doing a “princess film”. There’s nothing special here in the storytelling department. It’s about as competent as it gets. I was invested in the central character in Moana, mostly due to Auli’i Cravalho’s fantastic debut performance. She gave Moana a lot of personality, making her strong, smart, and adorably optimistic, all with a beautiful singing voice to boot. Dwayne Johnson’s Maui was fun and humorous, portraying the mischievous sidekick with a heart of gold. I was actually quite impressed by his voice acting, as I thought he would phone it in, but he injects the comedic timing and delivery he’s known for. While the characters were well developed, they felt like your typical Disney characters we’ve all seen before. Once you have homogenized characters and plots, everything becomes too predictable and my interest is a little bit lost. While the hero’s journey is classic, it’s also confining when you have to adhere to tradition.

Speaking of tradition, what’s a Disney cartoon without songs, right? This film certainly has songs, but save for Johnson’s admittedly toe tapping “You’re Welcome”, they’re all largely forgettable and don’t do much to advance the story. It’s almost like they’re just there to fill the quota. This feeling is more obvious when characters directly reference these classic Disney tropes. “If you’re the daughter of a chief and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” Johnson actually states to our titular character. There are more annoying attempts at parody like this throughout, but they completely miss the point of the word. You can’t just call attention to and criticize these tropes, and then just use them anyway. It attempted to be subversive, but in the laziest way possible. Frozen, for example, criticized classic cliches and then subverted them, attempting to do something a bit more original. I don’t like making comparisons like this, but Frozen‘ just did everything better, from the songs, to the story.

It may sound like I didn’t like this film, but I did. I had fun and was plenty entertained, but even a sequence directly inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t enough to make me fall in love. I felt like I wanted something more, or at least something different. People often say, “Well, what do you expect? It’s a Disney movie. It’s going to be like that.” Well, that’s no excuse for them not to at least get out of their comfort zone. There have been some fantastic animated films over the past few years, such as ParaNorman and The LEGO Movie, that not only have beautiful animation, but clever, unique stories, as well. Moana is your typical Disney product. It has vibrant animation, fun characters, and a classic story, but it’s all the same. Disney used to be the godfathers of animated storytelling. The beautiful animation is still there, but the soul seems to be slowly fading. Ever since Tangled came out in 2010, people said we have ourselves a new Disney Renaissance. How about we have ourselves a Disney Revolution instead?

6.5/10

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