Friday, December 9, 2016

Moana (2016)

It's almost customary, tedious, and droning at this point to rave about Disney's unerring coupling of their short and feature films, as it is basically a given. However, I first and foremost must uphold my personal integrity and morale of insisting to give credit where credit is due. That said, Inner Workings, the short film in question, is Disney's straightforward answer to Inside Out. It manages to be as hilarious and insightful as that movie. It constructs a new path while treading in the same territory, much like the film that follows: Moana.

The film takes place on the Polynesian island, Motonui. The Polynesian islands came to be after the goddess, Te Fiti, emerged, using her heart, presented in the form of a stone, to create life. However, demigod Maui stole the heart, which provoked a confrontation with lava demon, Te Ka, and thus the heart became lost...until Moana, the daughter of the island's head chief, becomes the chosen one to receive the heart, return it, restore security to the island. She meets up with demigod Maui to assist her in her journey.

Something that impressed me tremendously while watching the film was its rhythm. While many Disney films glide through their stories more briskly, Moana takes more of a relaxed approach. It's leisurely, controlled, and contained, opting to add additional flesh to the story, while never coming across as ponderous. It's fastidious tonally, yet rich, effusive, and vigorous in execution. While the first third of the film has a healthy dose of build-up and development, it also unfortunately highlights certain derivative elements of the story. Not only could you play a drinking game out of how many instances Moana's father says, "We do not go beyond the reef," but you could play a drinking game of how many other movies have used this trope, specifically how many times EACH movie uses a similar line of dialogue.

However, the film gains full force when Maui and Moana meet. Not only are Moana and Maui two of the most addictive, lovable characters in the Disney canon, but their alchemy and wily call-and-response interactions birth one of the greatest duos in cartoon history.  Most duos built on banter and dichotomy are cut-and-dry, stark, and centered on two extremes. There are certainly remnants of this here, but the approach in Moana is unique and novel. Maui, on the surface, is a typical self-absorbed, virile, chauvinist caricature, but he is considerably more fragile, prone to leave his tics and vices exposed for Moana to take advantage of. Moana is, as expected, the inexperienced yet determined young girl, ready to take charge. Even though Maui is stronger, Moana does not allow him to degrade her easily. Usually, her archetype has to labor for a give-and-take against a character like Maui. However, she is not presented as simply valiant, but moreso headstrong and quick-witted. Instead of straining to get her way, she possesses a wit that targets Maui's internal weaknesses and naked impulses. 

This dynamic, along with their refreshing characterizations, leads to some of the most riotous, effervescent, and hilarious comedy Disney has ever produced. It also helps that they are voiced brilliantly by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Auli'i Cravalho. Johnson continues his hot streak of characters seemingly meant to counter, subvert, and innocuously decry his notorious tough-guy image. Additionally, he gets to demonstrate some surprisingly above-adequate singing abilities. Cravalho as Moana exhibits massive quantities of personality, exultation, attitude, and warm innocence, which, while it makes for a stupendous performance, could either make or break her, given the magnitude of her role juxtaposed with her age.

Above all else, I sat there, absolutely transfixed with the animation. if judging Disney films solely on their animation quality, this ranks in the top two of all time. What a luscious, intoxicating, sublime film this is to merely experience. When we aren't being introduced to the poppy, vibrant creatures, we are immersed in a world treated with more gravity and poetry than I have viewed in a while, displayed in. glorious 3-D. While the majority number of character designs are all normally amiable, Moana is the definitive standout, designed beautifully with her inviting smile, radiant skin, and immaculate doe eyes. This film also provides us with the most expressive tattoos and water I have ever witnessed in an animated film; an accolade I never thought I would ultilize.

As much as I adore this film, it is one of my most flawed favorite films ever. As I stated earlier, there are many cliched moments, so not every emotional moment resonates to their fullest extent. Also...*sigh*...the music. Now, let me clarify. I like every song in the film. Musically, they complement the atmosphere and climate perfectly and the imagery that accompanies the songs is grand and sumptuous. But lyrically...look, Mr. Miranda, I know this is your first Disney effort and you collaborated with two other gentlemen (Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa'i). You did a good job, but you still have a long way to go.

Regardless, this is one of the most magnificent, wondrous, beautiful, and funniest animated films I have ever seen with one of the strongest protagonists in Disney history; a character that little girls not merely can look up to, but should look up to. It's odd in the way Disney has been a beacon of hope, a savior in an awful, awful year. This film and Zootopia almost act as the bookends for 2016. Zootopia showed the ills of discrimination and xenophobia, which we will now have to confront for four years. Moana holds up a mirror and reflects the image of a proud, competent woman taking charge and gaining the proper approval of her peers, which now plays as both an unfortunate fantasy and a symbol of determination. Finding Dory, in the middle of the year, showed us how to maintain optimism and cheer when confronted with turbulence and seemingly impossible hardships. How morbidly prescient yet totally gracious. Through all this upheaval, Disney was with us. Hell, that whistling mouse would make a better leader than Chump.

RATING: Four out of four stars!