Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review: "Moana"

I’ve always thought “Pocahontas” was one of the weakest Disney animated films because it seemed like it simply wanted to present a multicultural experience and didn’t care about what story they used as the vehicle to do it. “Moana” stands as stark counterpoint, a completely enthralling, original tale that just happens to immerse us in the vibrant traditions of Polynesia.

Disney has hit another home run with the story of Moana (voice of Hawaiian actress Auli'i Cravalho), a teen who breaks the grip of her people’s land-bound laws to go out into the deep seas and try to restore the dying lands. Part anthropology, part mythology and pure imagination, it’s an action-filled musical romp that will delight parents as much as kids (and possibly more).

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (“The Princess and the Frog”) are old Disney hands who came up in the hand-drawn animation tradition and with this picture segue completely into CGI. Jared Bush’s screenplay employs actual Polynesian history and lore to come up something old and something new.

According to the epilogue, the far-flung islands of the Pacific were created by the goddess Te Fiti. But when her heart was stolen by the demigod Maui, she began to slowly die, with the festering creep gradually spreading to the other lands. Maui, who wields a massive magic fishhook that grants him the power to shapeshift into multitudinous creatures, was lost after a battle with a terrible demon that desired the heart for itself.

The brave and pure-hearted Moana is chosen by the ocean itself -- represented as tentacles of glowing water -- to take the heart, find Maui and compel him to heal the rift he caused.

Voiced by Dwayne Johnson, Maui is presented as a gargantuan man, almost as broad as he is tall, his body covered in tattoos that chronicle his Herculean exploits. One of his tats, a miniature version of himself, even moves around and acts as the fool whispering in the king’s ear.

Maui is quite full of himself, but not necessarily a bad guy. He stole Te Fiti’s heart because he wanted to give humans the power to create life itself. True, upon meeting Moana he traps her in a cave and steals her boat, but the relationship improves -- gradually.

Other voices include Rachel House as Moana’s wise but kooky grandmother, Temeura Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger as her parents and Alan Tudyk as Hei Hei, an idiotic chicken who stows away on Moana’s journey, so dumb he has to be continuously rescued from certain demise.

Jemaine Clement has a funny, memorable turn as Tamatoa, a massive crab who dwells in the realm of monsters and has a personal history with Maui. He sort of looks like the massive mutated cousin of Sebastian from “The Little Mermaid,” and has a penchant for collecting trinkets.

The music is just terrific -- rollicking, hummable and helps carry the story along. Songs were written by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i and Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame. The three best are “How Far I’ll Go,” Moana’s dreaming of a life beyond; “We Know the Way,” a paean to their tribe’s voyager past; and “You’re Welcome,” Maui’s signature self-introduction.

And yes, in case you’re wondering -- Johnson, formerly “The Rock,” shows off an unexpectedly fantastic singing voice.

The movie even displays some sly humor goofing on past Disney movies, like when Moana protests Maui’s assertion that, as the daughter of a chieftain, she constitutes royalty: “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” he says.

Fun and funny, full of adventure, a sense of danger and a deep feeling of hope, “Moana” is Disney’s next animated classic.

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