Monday, December 19, 2016


This review has taken an absurdly long time to write for no good reason other than just not really feeling in the mood to write much lately. It’s of late stopped being my go-to thing to do on the bus, even though other things I can do with my tablet are actually harder to manage on a bumpy ride. I’m actually doing this on a new Chromebook, to see if a device that has an actual keyboard but doesn’t weigh my bag down and can be used in the cramped space on a bus makes things better. But, hey, I’m getting this posted before its Boxing Day release in Australia, so I’m not completely behind!

Anyway, I like the heck out of the movie, even if I do feel like it represents the end of traditional animation in America - Clements & Musker seemed like the last holdouts, but now they’ve done a CGI picture, and aside from Don Hertzfeldt’s project, who knows if another will be financed? It feels like there should have been a formal farewell of some sort.

It’s a real shame, because the preview for the live-action Beauty and the Beast played before this, and aside from looking like a slavish copy rather than any sort of reinvention, it kind of looks horrific: Translating characters who were conceived perfectly as ink and paint into something like actual three-dimensional objects sucks the charm right out of them, with Mrs. Potts and Chip the worst examples. I wonder if the characters in Moana look more expressive than most CGI-animated creations in part because the team behind it is used to drawing expressions rather than trying to get them through controls. Or maybe the tech has just advanced.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 December 2016 in AMC Boston Common #8 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Depending on the intensity of one's animation fandom and opinion of the way the medium's tools have changed over the past generation, there may be something bittersweet about seeing the names of Ron Clements and John Musker on an almost-entirely CGI movie. Arguably Disney's top team during the studio's 1990s resurgence, they briefly left the company when it shifted away from hand-drawn animation, coming back to try and revive the format with The Princess and the Frog. For whatever reasons, that film didn't get audiences to fall back in love with traditional animation, and now the pair are the latest of the old guard to move fully into the digital world. Fortunately, switching tools hasn't dulled their storytelling skills at all; Moana is right up there with their other efforts, an entertaining addition to the Disney canon.

Moana herself is a Polynesian teenager, daughter of Chief Tui (voice of Temuera Morrison), training to one day be the leader of their village herself. They don't voyage on the open sea - their island of Moto Nui provides all they need and a protective reef makes fishing easy - but it leaves them in grave peril when the fish disappear and blight hits the crops. Moana's grandmother Tala (voice of Rachel House) says that this is the result of the demigod Maui staking the gemstone heart of island goddess Te Fiti, and that someone - inevitably Moana (voice of Auli'i Cravalho), defying her father - must track down Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson) and bring him to return the heart.

In some ways, Moana is notable for what the story doesn't include - the title character doesn't have a potential boyfriend, either in the form of Maui or on Moto Nui, and it's worth noting that not only is the chieftain's daughter being his heir no big deal, but she's shown as fairly capable. That's a laudable continuation of how the recent Disney animated features (princess-based or not) have given their heroines goals other than falling in love and getting married, and it makes Moana a particularly enjoyable protagonist, full of confidence and self-starting: As much as she's on this quest to help others people, it's always very much about her, and it gives the filmmakers a somewhat more, nuanced path to follow, as Moana's confidence and skill become become more solid things. It's kind of important that her arc is not just about finding the one particular thing she's good at but the thing that she is passionate about, changing the narrative from being entirely about destiny to Moana choosing her path.

As great a character as Moana is, it would be easy for Maui to overshadow her; a literal demigod with multiple superpowers and an ego to match, he’d seem to be better equipped to handle most situations that the sea throws at the pair. The large handful of writers do a fair job of giving him an arc that mostly keeps things in Moana’s hands without making him seem wasted in the role of comic relief. That’s a mix of things that voice actor Dwayne Johnson has no trouble pulling off; though the animators seldom copy Johnson’s physicality directly, they do capture a comfort with movement that matches the charisma in his voice.

There’s a solidity to Maui in particular that perhaps wouldn’t come across quite so well in the traditional animation that Clements & Musker have used until now (it is worth noting that Big Hero 6 team Don Hall & Chris WIlliams are listed as co-directors). The animation is, as one would expect from Disney by now, top-notch, some of their best work yet - Moana and Maui have some of the most expressive faces ever given to digitally-animated characters without ever falling prey to excessive photorealism or too much exaggeration. On top of that, the filmmakers use a few different techniques to make certain scenes pop, including a cel-animated tattoo on Maui’s skin and a moment during one of the songs that rather charmingly looks like the early attempts to merge animation and live action.

The songs themselves are not bad at all, and unlike some recent musicals (whether animated movies or, say, Bollywood productions), they are a constant presence throughout the film, rather than falling by the wayside as action sequences provide the big spectacle moments. The credits show three songwriters - Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina (who also composed the score), and Lin-Manuel Miranda - who are often mixed and matched, and it’s sometimes an odd mix of influences. It’s perhaps not surprising that the most memorable numbers, “Thank You” and “Shiny”, are credited solely to Miranda and serve as character-defining showstoppers; they aren’t needed, but they’re full of fun wordplay and give the animators a great chance to play with broad characters. Some of the others fall into the trap of a screenplay with many authors, often treading familiar ground in similar ways.

Of course, most films probably have as many individual contributors as this, with animated films generally being more honest about it. What’s important is that each person involved seems to have put something nifty into the mix, and then saw it combined in a way that makes for a strong movie that sails rather than flounders.

[Possibly-dead link to] Full review on EFC.

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