Movie Review: Moana

Disney’s Moana delivers girl power, South Pacific-style

Moana, the latest Disney animated feature, is everything you want and expect from the celebrated studio: lyrically captivating, visually stunning, alternately adventurous and playful and vaguely empowering. Although it lacks an instant musical hit like Frozen’s “Let It Go,” it definitely deserves a spot on the keeper list of Disney cartoons.

Set in an idyllic South Pacific environment, the movie focuses on the coming-of-age story of its title character, the daughter of an island chieftain who longs to explore the vast ocean beyond her village’s reef rather than tend to her leadership responsibilities at home. Moana’s heart is torn between her people and her dreams. Already, there’s a hint that we are continuing the recent evolution of Disney heroines from damsels in distress to girls with authority.

Her seafaring aspirations do, of course, get called into play when the fauna of her island starts to die. Her wise, if batty, grandmother convinces Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) that she must leave the safety of the familiar to put things right. The movie then shifts into full-blown Joseph Campbell territory as Moana embarks upon a hero’s quest, full of mysteries, challenges, and personal growth. Moana is aided on her quest, eventually, by the demigod Maui (a Pacific island version of Hercules, played by Dwayne Johnson). Will everything be restored to the natural order? Are we watching a Disney movie…what do you think?

Moana is a fascinating combination of elements. It explores new ground with the latest yet rare Disney princess of color. It features exotically attractive settings, unfamiliar mythology, and little-known but authentically South Pacific voice talent. Nearly all the principals are voiced by Hawaiian and New Zealander actors, including Rachel House as Gramma Tala, Temeura Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger as Chief Tui and his wife Sina, and Jemaine Clement (from TV’s Flight of the Conchords) as the humorously villainous Tamatoa.

But the film also hews closely to the Disney formula in both plot points and musical numbers. It’s the animated version of comfort food, and we know pretty much where the story will end up and the path it will take to get there. Similarly, one can almost predict each musical number in the moments before it starts. First, we have the happy villagers’ song, then segue to the wise elder “follow your heart” ballad, then cue up the heroine’s soaring anthem of self-discovery until it’s time for the up-tempo “quirky hero bragging” tune. Disney well knows the expectations of its largely adolescent audience and delivers exactly what they want.

Although Moana is clearly aimed at the younger set, it also entertains and delights the adults in the audience with the catchy music, breathtaking visuals, and reassuring story. So, in the end, everybody gets what they want, including, for Disney, another hit for its cartoon catalogue.

Six-pack Cinema & A Shot

As winter comes to Delaware, enjoy the warm sun and sand from these tropical locales, but remember not all—in fact, not much—is well in paradise.

Cast Away (2000)
Director Robert Zemeckis and actor Tom Hanks, who worked together effectively on Forrest Gump, re-team for this modern-day take on Robinson Crusoe. Hanks plays Chuck Noland, an efficiency expert for FedEx who finds himself stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash. Although the before and after-island scenes seem superfluous, the actor carries more than half the film by himself as he learns to survive on his wits…and with the repurposed debris washed up from his FedEx plane.

The Impossible (2012)
Directed by J.A. Bayona, The Impossible depicts the impact of the devastating Thailand tsunami of 2004 on the people in its relentless path. Focused on a vacationing British couple (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and their children, the film explores the human tragedy of natural disasters—powerfully re-created on film—as this family is battered (literally) and separated in an unfamiliar and horrifying landscape. I have qualms with the focus placed on a Western couple amid a Southeast Asian disaster, but the human drama still resonates.

Lilo and Stitch (2002)
Plucky but lonely adolescent Lilo finds a strange creature that she mistakes for an especially ugly dog, but Stitch (as she calls him) is actually an extraterrestrial genetic experiment gone rogue. Feared as violent by his creators, the escaped Stitch is adopted and domesticated—somewhat—by the irrepressible Lilo. Woven into this “girl and her dog” tale is a backstory based on the Hawaiian concept of ohana, or family, where bonds of love and interdependence can overcome even an alien invasion.

South Pacific (1958)
The big-screen translation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical about sailors and nurses on a South Pacific isle during World War II still shimmers with terrific R&H songs: “Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Bali H’ai,” and the luminous ballad, “Some Enchanted Evening.” But the romance between Mitzi Gaynor’s Nellie and Rossano Brazzi’s Emile feels overblown on screen, in part due to the chemistry-free casting. Ray Walston as hustling Seabee Luther Billis is a delight.

Tropic Thunder (2008)
The parts are greater than the sum in this often silly, occasionally hilarious parody of war movies, as it depicts a group of superficial, pampered actors trying to make a war movie. Starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr. and Steve Coogan, the movie contains some great moments and ideas (including Downey lamely trying to play a black character) but it suffers from Stiller’s inability as the director to stay focused. The best gag is a barely recognizable Tom Cruise as a profane studio executive.

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
A sterling cast, mostly unknowns at the time (Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Oscar-winner Linda Hunt), illuminate this tense drama set during an attempted coup in 1960s Indonesia. Directed by Peter Weir, this film has a lot on its mind (political turmoil, journalistic ethics, poverty, exploitation) and conveys it compellingly. Gibson and Weaver create sparks in the central romance, which is given further depth through Maurice Jarre’s thrilling score.

And a shot…coming to Theatre N in December.

Little Sister Screening Dec. 16-18
This offbeat dark comedy by fledgling writer-director Zach Clark centers around a strong if strained sibling relationship within a dysfunctional family. Colleen has reluctantly returned home to Asheville, N.C., to reconnect with her seriously disfigured brother, a recent Iraq War veteran. But she must also contend with parents and a community that have an out-of-date understanding of who she is. Ally Sheedy plays Colleen’s passive-aggressive stoner mom, perhaps her Breakfast Club character become an adult. For a full Theatre N schedule and more information, go totheatren.com.