Monday, December 5, 2016

Deus Ex Moana

A very wet adventure that's well worth your time.
Disney's Moana is a beautiful watch and a terrific listen. This is Disney doing what Disney does best, and you're in for a treat. However, despite the explosively expressive songs by Opetaia Foa'i and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mythic story by screenwriter Jared Bush and story gurus Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell, and Jordan Kandell, and one of the best antihero characters of the current century (a glib, smooth-talking, pitch-perfect Dwayne Johnson as Maui), all is not sunshine and palm trees on the sparkling blue horizon.

The main story beats are paint-by-numbers and easy to follow. Moana's a young woman who dreams of more than her simple village life. A dark force from outside threatens all she holds dear, and soon she's in way over her head, having to return a sacred artifact to the goddess from whom it was stolen. The songs are well-placed and occasionally possess the rare distinction of advancing the plot in addition to externalizing the characters' inner voices and self-doubts. Voiced by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, Moana's believable, strong, and lovable. We've also seen her exasperation with her hometown (home-island?) before in films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. UCLA's Hal Ackerman says, "A character who has to get something is more effective than a character who needs to give something." Moana herself is definitely in the latter category, and take from that what you will. Overall, she's relatable even though it would've been an unusual and perhaps more rewarding choice to see a character who was cut from a different cloth.

Where Moana really shines is with its secondary characters. Hei Hei is a dimwitted (and that's being extraordinarily kind) chicken who owns the lion's share of the film's laughs. Its stupidity is stark and hilarious, although it becomes a bit one-note after the first dozen times he smashes his face against something.

We needed way more of this guy.
Pua is an adorable pig who features in plenty of marketing materials even though he's barely in the film. When it comes to adorable pigs, I'm on the side of the fence that believes that films need more of them.

Finally, we're brought to Dwayne Johnson's Maui - the film's Han Solo. A scoundrel, a trickster, and an ultimately redeemable rapscallion. I'd sit through a film just about him. He's shockingly vulnerable and sensitive, making him a solid axis around which the film can rotate - to a point at which he overshadows Moana, herself. Maui alone is worth the price of admission and his transition might be the most sharply defined in the film as a whole.

My biggest gripe is with another secondary character who we're introduced to early on. The ocean is a character in the film. It moves, acts, and reacts - as in a bona fide character. It explicitly (if wordlessly) communicates with Moana while looking like the liquid spear visions from Donnie Darko or the water creature from The Abyss. While a clever motif at first, the ocean saves her life so often and points the way every several minutes and becomes such a huge help to Moana's quest that one must wonder why the ocean itself doesn't take the quest into its own hands and complete it on its own. It's a story that takes place on an ocean, yes. But perhaps more of the time dedicated to the ocean as a character would've been better spent focusing on the characters traversing it.

Further, at the point at which Moana doubts herself, her place in the world, and her quest, another supernatural helping of deus ex machina comes in to save the day and give her self-esteem a boost. She's a strong character - she'd have to be to sail out alone over open ocean - but when you have a character alone on a sailboat, there are only so many options for conflict and character development if you don't have Life of Pi's Richard Parker at the ready. And that's clear in this film.

Overall, Moana is a jewel, though not a flawless one. It's worth your time, and the songs will be in your head (and you'll like that a lot) long after you leave the theater.

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