With the invigorating Polynesian nautical epic Moana it’s time once again for Disney to flaunt their recovered mojo while the once-flawless Pixar pins their hopes on selling more Cars merchandise as well as the expensive, grim, Zack Snyder-looking commercial they made to go with all of it.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Out in the middle of the ocean far away from us, Princess Ariel is in line to become a great ruler someday, but yearns to visit someplace else exotic and unsafe. Her dad the king is mean and won’t let her expand her horizons and wander much beyond their front yard despite her catchy song about Over There. Two toy-shaped animal sidekicks have her back, but it’s a magically inclined elderly, motherly type who gives her the bippity-boppity-boo she needs to transcend her trappings, walk away from the ashes surrounding her, and pursue her destiny.
Critical to her quest is the special partner she acquires — a magical, shape-changing genie voiced by a beloved actor from big, crowd-pleasing live-action movies who used to be an over-the-top TV star. This muscular, topless, nonwhite, flying powerhouse regrets his powers are disrupted by limitations tied to an inanimate object, and sometimes he really can’t stand being around Our Hero, though you’d think that living thousands of years as a superhuman would’ve taught him more patience and nobler character.
There’s a fancy fight with a band of most peculiar pirates that might go better if only one of the heroes would stop refusing to grow up. There’s another weird, harrowing action sequence inside a cavernous space involving a large seafaring animal that ends in victory, no strings attached. And then there’s the climactic monster fight, something something something Lava Titan from Hercules.
Otherwise this sprightly hodgepodge of multiple Disney films is a totally original creation.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Moana herself is blessed with the pipes of newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, who’ll be a big name in the coming years if Hollywood has any horse sense. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, as her (sparring) partner Maui, gives her space to shine and is rewarded with his own showy theme in the catchy braggadocio of “You’re Welcome”. The young, inexperienced, yet driven leader and the ancient, egotistical jerkface make a fine pair of mismatched buddy-adventurers.
Moana’s well-intentioned yet obstructive parents are Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett from Attack of the Clones) and ex-Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger. Men in Black 3‘s Jemaine Clements plays another villain here who’s basically what if Smaug were a wacky crab. Rachel House (Whale Rider) plays triple her age as the wise grandma who knows better than those meddling parents. And Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk, now Disney Animation’s answer to John Ratzenberger, voices one of the stupidest, funniest movie chickens this side of Chicken Run.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Lessons learned in Moana include but aren’t limited to the following:
1. Isolationism will get you and your loved ones dead.
2. Don’t let fear of the unknown keep you from your calling.
3. Stealing is wrong, even for supposedly noble, vaguely Robin Hood-ish purposes.
3a. Sometimes ’tis better to give a MacGuffin than to take one.
4. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a princess.
5. Sometimes monsters and jerks are special inside like you, once you and they realize what they really need.
6. Forgiveness is cool.
Nitpicking? One bodily-fluid gag was technically clever if a bit UGH. The unremarkable short prefacing the film, “Inner Workings”, more than triples that gag level and did nothing for us.
As with recent Pixar fare like Inside Out and Finding Dory, and despite the giant monster fights, Moana has no singular, larger-than-life chief Big Bad chewing the scenery and spewing antagonistic bon mots all over the place. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it means we’re going yet another year without a really good Disney villain’s theme, nothing here to carry the torch of “Gaston” or even Jafar’s “Prince Ali” parody. The closest we get is Jemaine Clements putting his Flight of the Conchords experience to peppy use in the giant crab’s big glam number “Shiny”, but it’s so tonally askew from the rest of the soundtrack, you’d think the projectionist spliced in a sneak preview for NBC’s next live musical.
So what’s to like? For those of us who don’t have the connections or cash to catch Hamilton in person, Moana is the average Joe’s first, best chance to luxuriate theatrically in the songwriting talents of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who even lends his own voice to a couple of tracks. In addition to all of the aforementioned solid songs, young Cravalho’s turn in the spotlight, “How Far I’ll Go”, is a too-short but nonetheless impressive anthem for an up-‘n’-coming Woman of the People who braves the open seas, mythological mayhem, and an untamed demigod to save the lives of everyone on her island, all without having to fend off the advances of any objectifying dudes seeking a chick to subjugate (cf. Frozen, Brave).
What’s not to love about an introduction to faraway realms beyond our mundane neighborhoods, immersion in new musical sounds, bedazzlement by animation that puts us squarely in the middle of the Pacific and all its ordeals, imperfect heroes who learn through each other to be better people, and a cast kept small for the sake of story integrity instead of sprawling for the sake of an expanding empire of action figures and stuffed animals. I’m sure there’re a few of those out there, but their restraint is admirable anyway. While parts of Moana still bear the imprimatur of the vast Disney assembly line, the whole exceeds the peddler’s pedigree and integrates into a worthy addition to the Disney library.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after the Moana end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…we rejoin Tamatoa the giant crab at the bottom of his deep volcano fortress, where, ever since his defeat, he’s been trapped upside-down on his back and unable to flip over. Frustrated and annoyed that no one’s coming to his rescue, he confronts the audience through the fourth wall (paraphrasing here): “Let’s be real: if my name were Sebastian and I had a cool Jamaican accent, you’d be totally helping me.” And there we leave him, possibly stuck like that until the sequel.
Beyond that, the film also gives Special Thanks to Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi (who had a hand in writing but was ultimately uncredited) and the cast of Hamilton, among other, odder choices. Exhibit A: the very last name listed, for some reason, is Indiana native Abraham Benrubi, a.k.a. Jerry the receptionist from ER.