Thursday, December 1, 2016

Moana Review

Earlier this year on this blog I took the opportunity to rank all 55 movies from Walt Disney Animation Studios. If you remember that list, or go back and look at it, you'll know that I've been pretty high on Disney recently. Following a bit of a lull in the late 90's and 2000's both financially and in terms of quality (with some major exceptions, of course), Disney roared back in the 2010's with quite the successful string of movies that continually blew me away. We're talking about Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia. Frozen and Tangled were great modern-day Disney princess movies. Wreck-It Ralph was great for fans of 80's video games and Big Hero 6 was great for fans of superhero movies. Zootopia managed to come almost out of nowhere to top all of these modern Disney films by being very deep and relevant. And very adult as it legitimately scared kids and thematically probably went right over their head. I had no reason to believe Moana would be any different. According to critics (98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (8.3 on IMDb), it has been another huge success. For me it was a bit of a miss, though. I realize this puts me in a huge minority, but hear me out as I explain my point of view with this movie.

Before we go any further, allow me to make a quick differentiation. I'll be simple by calling these Disney films from here on out, but know that I am specifically referring to Walt Disney Animation Studios. Not DisneyToon Studios. Not Pixar Animation Studios. Despite all being owned by Disney, these are three separate animation studios. I have links there so you know which movies belong where. Moana is the 56th film in the Walt Disney Animation Studios cannon and second of 2016 following Zootopia. And it was very smartly positioned as a Thanksgiving release. In 2013, Frozen was a fellow Disney princess musical released at Thanksgiving that was so well-liked that it became a huge box office success and turned into a worldwide phenomenon. In fact, it became such a big phenomenon that it quickly created an equal number of enemies. But Disney doesn't care about that as Anna and Elsa material still sell like wildfire with young girls. I've always been on the pro-Frozen side and I have the ability to staunchly defend it, but now is not the time for that. Only time will tell if Moana can replicate this success, but Disney did their best to hit all the same notes. They're off on the right foot with the box office numbers. For me it just didn't work.

Now I'm not going to say this is a bad movie. It isn't. If you haven't seen it yet, I'd definitely recommend you go give it a shot, especially if you have younger kids. They will all almost assuredly love it and you probably will, too. But for me this was just a middle-of-the-pack Disney movie. In the cannon of now 56 movies, I would put it at #35. Tell you the truth most of those 56 movies are decent movies. There's only a small handful of Disney movies that I would say are outright bad. Home on the Range and Chicken Little are two of them if you want examples. But for the most part Disney has consistently made good movies for about 80 years now, so #35 for Moana isn't nearly as bad as it may initially seem when you look at my list. The big takeaway is that I didn't see anything special from Moana. In terms of story, characters, and music it's about as basic as you can get for a Disney film without falling into the bad category. When I say they did their best to hit all the same notes that made Frozen successful, I honestly think they went bare minimum with all those notes. Everything felt very safe and it didn't feel like they tried to go out of their way to make something special that will stand out in a very crowded library of Disney movies.

In getting into the specifics, let's start off with the characters. First off, I love that Disney has made an effort to have more strong female characters recently to balance out all their damsels in distress they did in the old days. It's refreshing. Especially when you get the girl power in Frozen where the charming prince does NOT save the day. It's all Anna and Elsa. The title character of Moana adds to this list of strong female characters. She's also the first Polynesian Disney princess, which is cool. It's good that we're getting culturally diverse here. But outside her ethnicity, what sets Moana apart from the other Disney princesses? She seemed like a combination of Anna, Rapunzel and Merida. All four of them felt trapped for a certain reason and want to get out and see the world, but had overprotective family members holding them back. Add in a touch of the nature-driven Pocahontas and boom! Moana. Nothing new. Just some recycled Disney princesses with recycled character arcs. She even had the obligatory animal sidekick with the rooster, who was far less funny than the other sidekicks. Auli'i Cravalho, who celebrated her 16th birthday on opening night, did great as the voice. But when your title character of your movie isn't interesting or unique, that's a problem.

A much more interesting character was Dwayne Johnson's Maui. Dwayne Johnson has an undeniable charm and charisma that rubs off in every role he does and this is no different. Even though he's just a voice, you can't help just loving the demigod Maui. You can tell that Dwayne Johnson had a lot of fun with this role and he's easily the best part of this movie. His character had an interesting complexity to him that I wish the other characters had. Instead everyone but Maui were just cookie-cutter Disney characters. But even with Maui, his character arc is extremely choppy. Instead of having a smooth, well-rounded character arc, it's more like a staircase. There are phases Maui goes through, but things just jump from one phase to another without a good transition. Maui and Moana did have a good chemistry as they were going on this journey, but the journey itself wasn't super interesting. Not only can you easily predict everything that's going to happen in this movie, but there's a point in the movie where the story slams to a halt and flows aimlessly almost like the literal journey on the water they take. The ending picks up, but it's the exact ending you expected from this movie with one small surprise that doesn't even shock you once you think about it.

Since this is a musical, we do need to dive into that aspect of the movie. Yes, I do like musicals, especially Disney musicals. That was one of the strong points of Frozen. It was all-around one of the best musicals Disney has done. After my first showing, I couldn't get "Let it Go" out of my head and after my second and third showings, all the songs got stuck in my head at the same time. Frozen successfully pulled off what The Lion King, AladdinBeauty and the Beast and Pocahontas did with their music. I wanted Moana to do the same thing. But it didn't. All the songs felt out of place and unnecessary. Instead of being excited that we were diving into new music, I kept wondering why our characters decided to stop and sing. That's not what I should be doing in a musical. Sure, "How Far I'll Go" is a decent song and I hope it gives Auli'i Cravahlho and/or Alessia Cara a hit, but I couldn't even hum the tune or sing the chorus for you right now. For better or for worse, it's not even close to as catchy as "Let it Go," despite it being an obvious push to be another viral hit. It even has a similar title. Personally I liked Dwayne Johnson's "You're Welcome" a lot more. Wouldn't it be great to see Dwayne Johnson get a Billboard hit? The rest of the songs... I can't even remember any of them. I could look them up and re-listen to them. But that's beside the point.

Once again, this is not a bad movie. It just felt very safe to me for Disney and nothing special. Sure, not all Disney movies have to be intense, deep and unpredictable like Zootopia. These are fairly tales after all. And this one is a Disney princess movie. But even in the other predictable Disney movies there's either a really strong message that sticks out or heartstrings that are pulled. Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph are predictable, but Big Hero 6 almost makes me cry every time I watch it and Wreck-It Ralph is absolutely adorable and touching. Moana didn't make me cry. It pulled at no heartstrings. Yes, there's a message here, but it didn't hit me with the feels and felt like a recycled message that Disney has already told recently in movies like Frozen and Tangled, but didn't do quite as good of a job. It's certainly nowhere close to as powerful as movies like Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas and Aladdin, which are my top three Disney movies. If you loved Moana and you completely disagree with everything I've said, that's fine. I expect a lot of that and I am open to you telling me why you felt this was a top-tier Disney movie. Disney just didn't get me this time. I'm going to give Moana a 7/10.

No comments:

Post a Comment