December 08, 2016
"Moana" (Rated A)
Cast: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House
Genre: Fantasy/Animated Musical
Dwight's Rating: 3 Stars
A spirited teenager grows increasingly frustrated with life on her small island. She dreams of exploring what's beyond the horizon and of seeing the big world, all while her community struggles with dwindling resources, including food insecurity and dramatically reduced fishery stocks.
No, it's not a contemporary story about The Bahamas and a biography of thousands of young Bahamians. It's the plot of a new animated film -- a Disney musical, no less.
"Moana" has been breaking records since it was released in the United States (U.S.) and in The Bahamas over the Thanksgiving weekend two weeks ago, and has been number one at the U.S. box office ever since. It's the latest hit from the resurgent Walt Disney Animation Studios, following a string of successes, including the massive blockbuster "Frozen" in 2013, and this year's "Zootopia". Of late, the studio has been challenging even Disney's own Pixar for the animation crown.
We've come a long way from the days when Disney heroines were princesses waiting to be rescued by a prince or knight in shining armor. "Moana", like "Frozen" before it, isn't focused on love and romantic relationships, but perhaps has far loftier goals.
The teenager sails out on a daring mission to prove herself a master "wayfinder" and fulfill her ancestors' unfinished quest. During her journey, Moana meets the once-mighty demi-god Maui, and together, they traverse the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous fiery creatures and impossible odds.
That synopsis may sound "cartoony", but at the heart of the story are messages about environmental protection and conservation, and self-discovery.
"Moana" is beautifully animated, featuring fantastic and vibrant colors. It's so bright and lusciously illustrated that you may not miss the 3-D, which we are once again deprived of here in The Bahamas. This summer's "The Secret Life of Pets" from rival Illumination Entertainment was also eye-poppingly exuberant, but "Moana" takes things to yet another level.
Then, there are the songs, which were co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Broadway's "Hamilton". I still haven't been able to get "How Far I'll Go" out of my head. It's stuck in there like that dreadful "Let it Go" from "Frozen" -- a film I have never watched (yet I feel I've heard that annoying song about 2 million times). At least "How Far I'll Go" is tolerable, even likeable.
That's not the case with all the songs. Most are disposable and forgettable, and the rest are just irritating. Sadly, it's not only some of those songs that are "irritating". For all its charms, there's a lot to roll eyes about here. In typical Disney fashion, "Moana" is overly saccharine at times, and you just know everything will end well. This all contributes to the film's second and third-acts feeling drawn-out, lacking any real drama and conflict.
Other Disneyisms -- meant, one assumes, to attract and appease the youngest in the audience -- are a tad exhausting, including ample screen time for an apparently mentally-challenged rooster and the many reactive tattoos all over Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson).
Those criticisms aside, Johnson and newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, who voices Moana, are great, delivering enthusiastic performances, and have good chemistry.
Children and teens will enjoy "Moana", and most adults (especially if you're not in a foul mood) will see a lot to like about it.
The important and extremely timely and relatable themes delve into environmental responsibility, and move beyond selfish pursuits to do what's best for the wider-community. They, along with a message of female empowerment, point to signs that, while not quite at Pixar levels of consciousness, Disney animation continues to grow up and relate to and reflect the non-fairytale issues affecting real people in our world.
o Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of " Morning Blend" on Guardian Radio. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.
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