Moana (****1/2) continues to change the game for Princesses

moana

Moana – 2016

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker
Screenplay Jared Bush
Starring (Voices)  Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk

Lin-Manuel Miranda is everything right now in the world of show music, and that certainly was the predominant word rushing through early buzz of Moana. Luckily, when one sees the film, it’s not the only thing that anyone will remember. Based on Polynesian history and legend, in which story creators Clements and Musker discovered that the culture stopped travelling about 3000 years ago. Then about 1000 years later, they started up again. Early versions of the story centered around the character of demi-god Maui (Johnson), but the winds of Disney change caught on.

Now we get a young teenage princess (Cravalho) with her pet chicken Heihei (Tudyk) who is destined to redeem the sins of the afore-mentioned Maui. He stole the heart of the island Goddess Te Fiti to bring it to humanity as a gift. Kind of like he envisions he is. If Gaston had some charm, he’d be Maui. Oh and yeah, she says she isn’t a princess. Maui dispenses with that faulty logic with one of the films many clever lines:

If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.

Moana is the daughter of the chief (Morrison) of a small Polynesian Island Motunui and she dreams of life beyond the reef. Her grandmother (House) encourages the dreams, but her father thinks it’s foolish. Upon her Grandma’s dying wish Moana makes her escape and comes across Maui, who has been stranded on an island for a millenia. Before the film falls into the familiar rhythm of so many Disney movies that preceded it, we are reminded that Maui is brash and stubborn in his insistence that he has done nothing wrong. Oh, and he’s a little scared.

Moana isn’t scared though. She’s a girl. And this time around, the girl doesn’t need a man to finish the job so she can fall in love with him.

Moana the film is beautiful in much the same way that Tangled is in its palate of deep resonate colors that jump off of the screen. One could watch this movie 1000 times and still not catch up with the detail imbued within the frame. It’s the most beautiful film of 2016.

The characters and situations are memorable. Heihei, as dumb as the chicken is portrayed, has a usefulness that is endearing and never detracts from the film as so many sidekicks in Disney films have in the past. Johnson excels in a role that allows him to be as manly as we all know he is, but still play second fiddle to a girl on a journey to find herself.  If only they could find a way to make him heroic without being foolish and still have room for Moana’s heroism, too.

Similarly effective are the various nemeses that they encounter. The giant coconut crab, Tamatoa (Clement) has a humorous number. The best part of the film is the chase scene involving scads of pirate coconut clad creatures called the Kakamora. It’s a brief interlude, but without a doubt, the best thing in the film. We need more Kakamora.

Moana is a worthy discovery for Disney. For once, we have a Princess character whose voice and body can’t fit into the mold of all the others before her. This is a great thing. She looks Polynesian. She sounds Polynesian. She still dreams her dreams like Disney, but she doesn’t need a man to save the day.

Cravalho does a great job singing various renditions of the centerpiece song How Far I’ll Go. She is, more importantly, the actual age of the hero she portrays. This is great because there is no question mid way through the story, she and Maui are not going to be an inevitable couple. Maui is too old and they don’t go creepy on this one. I am not sure how much farther we go with the story of Moana, but hopefully she continues to find a way to mine her talents.

Get used to hearing the soundtrack, because once the movie is released on home video no one is going to be able to avoid it in any house with kids under 10. Johnson’s You’re Welcome is a great farce and he has a good singing voice. The only place it falters is the song Moana does with her grandma’s ghost. It meanders like something from Into the Woods. They stay centered around How Far I’ll Go, for the most part and it works as an inspirational theme.

There is a recipe out there somewhere to make a valiant woman’s story without sacrificing her male counterpart. They almost made it here, but the “let me clean up your mess” feeling of the story doesn’t quite make it. Still, it’s message is good enough to accompany it’s remarkable visuals. I am going to assume no one will need to say “she persisted” someday. They will just say the protagonist persisted.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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