Saturday, November 26, 2016

Moana Review

Disney sure is spoiling us this year!

I think it's safe to say that Frozen was a phenomenon that could never be replicated.

Disney can try as much as it wants for the next decade or so to recapture the magic of Frozen, but much like how The Little Mermaid revolutionized Disney for a new generation, Frozen made Disney once again the king of princesses and songs that you'll hear once and dread hearing ever again. Frozen was something that I can't really put into words why it's so popular, it just is, and yes, it is as good as five year old girls say it is.

That's why I was excited for Moana all year. This was meant to be another Disney princess musical, but with a Polynesian flare this time. No matter what you say about Disney musicals, but they're almost always entertaining and sometimes just jaw droppingly fantastic. I mean, I'm not the only one that thinks that Beauty and the Beast was one of the best children's movie ever made, and the worst Disney princess musical for me would be Pocahontas, but I still find enjoyment out of it. I knew that Moana wouldn't be as wildly popular as Frozen was, but I had hopes that it would be a good movie.

And it is a good movie. Moana is a fun little ride with some great animation and fun songs, but is hampered completely by a by the books plot that never actually does anything unique. The story is laid out in the first five minutes, and there are no swerves or curves, just a straight arrow to the finish line.

If you've ever seen a Disney movie before, then you already know the plot of Moana. I would say that the plot is conventional, but that wouldn't be nearly close enough to describing how boiler plate the story is. Moana is a princess, but she doesn't want to be called a princess, who wants to explore away from her island, but her strict father refuses until Moana gets told that only she can save the world by making the trickster demigod Maui return a stone to a special island to stop darkness from creeping into the world. So... Little Mermaid, Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, and maybe Princess and the Frog?

I wouldn't be so bother by the conventionality of the plot if it wasn't for how the entire story is wrapped around a destiny plot line. You know exactly the kind of story I'm talking about, where a character has greatness thrust upon them because of a prophecy, or they were chosen, or they were selected because we need a main character somehow, see Hercules and Pocahontas. In Moana, she's chosen at birth to be the ocean's guardian who will save the world, and she also has to content with eventually taking the throne of her people. So on two levels, Moana is being told throughout her life that she will accomplish great things because she's her, and that her entire purpose is just to fulfill a prophecy.

In the span of 90 minutes, I've lost track of how many times she says her goal, to take Maui to a specific island to save the world. She says it to Maui God knows how many times, and makes it a point to say it whenever she needs to motivate herself to do something. Moana doesn't have any agency besides "I must do this thing because I was told to do it." She barely has any character besides saying that she's going to do it because it's her destiny.

Moana is exactly like Tidus from Final Fantasy X. She's been told that she's going to amount to something great, and the entire movie instead focuses on how important and significant every OTHER character is besides herself. Maui is a much more charismatic character and they greatly influence the plot more-so than Moana, who has one great moment at the end and serves mostly to develop alongside Maui and make him more humble. Moana doesn't change in the course of the movie. Like Tidus though, she keeps on insisting that this journey is entirely within her control and casts herself as the hero. There's a point in the movie where Maui tells Moana the truth about his crime, and she still goes on about reciting her mantra even though there's no need to do it!

When you look at strong Disney princesses like Belle, Jasmine, and Elsa, they all had motivations tied to their wants and needs. I'm going to sacrifice myself to save my father. I'm going to stop Jafar for my people. I'm going to run away to discover myself. Moana? I'm going to do what I've been told to do... twice. It just rings hollow and makes Moana a fairly weak princess all thing's considered.

That MAJOR gripe aside, I really enjoyed my time spent watching Moana. I love a good movie musical, and I can always count on Disney to come up with a few really good songs. While there's nothing that's going to drive anyone insane for the next few months (thank God), the songs were pretty... okay. Nothing too amazing like Hunchback, but fun enough for me to hum them on the ride home. My two favorite songs are "You're Welcome", where Maui meets Moana for the first time, and "Shiny", a song sung by a giant hermit crab demon obsessed with gold. Both are great just purely because of the performers behind them, The Rock and Flight of the Conchord's Jermaine Clement respectively.

Moana's princess ballad, "How Far I'll Go", is probably going to be the one song you'll hear outside of the movie, but it's fairly good for what it's worth. It's nothing too great, it's not "Let it Go" after all, but compared to other Disney princess ballads, it's perfectly serviceable.

Lin-Manuel Miranda helped score the movie, and while it's fairly easy to tell his voice apart from every other singer, I wouldn't have been able to tell that he scored it unless you actively told me. Don't go see this movie expecting Hamilton levels of awe. I can't help but think that this is the Oscar bid that Manuel is looking for, so we'll see how far it goes.

See what I did there? HA! Oh me and my puns.

I also thought that the ending was perfectly fine for what it was. I'm disappointed that Disney has shied away from doing really great villains in recent years, Dr. Facilier was probably the most recent great Disney villain, and that was back in 2009, I do like how the ending kind of subverted that expectation. I won't say how, but it was a surprisingly touching moment that made me reflect on the movie as a whole.

It would also be remiss if I didn't talk about the Polynesian influence on the film. In short, I think it's really cool. It adds a nice setting to the movie that we normally don't see in any other movie. Most movies are usually set in America or Europe, but seeing a movie centered around the Pacific Islands is great, and I love how vibrant every shot of the movie is. Between this and Pokemon Moon, I'm getting a lot of Pacific goodness in November.

So while I can say I definitely enjoyed parts of Moana, the story dragged the movie down considerably. I don't outright hate the character of Moana, but she's about as interesting as Merida is to me. Merida is feisty and goes against norms, but not to the same extent that Elsa did. Elsa had a damn good reason for being the way she was and you get the feeling that her arc would have happened regardless of whether or not she had that public meltdown. If there was no prophecy saying she would save the world, she probably would have stayed on that island all her life. She would have had no reason or conflict to leave,

Moana is a fine movie that I have no problem recommending to families or Disney fans. But it certainly isn't a Zootopia, a movie which had cute Disney images and metaphors as well as being unique and thought provoking. If you're looking for a nice fun musical to lighten your spirits, then I would say go see Moana easily. If not, maybe you're better of waiting until La La Land in a few weeks.


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