In case you’ve been living under a rock,Disney Animation’s been on a roll lately.
With Frozen still a merchandising juggernaut, Wreck-It Ralph establishing charactersand a universe so charming and loveable they alone justify the upcoming sequel, and Zootopia earlier this yearmaking waves on its thematic content, it's safe to say the kids of today,a couple of decades from now, will look back on these films the way we look backon the Disney Renaissance of the 90’s.
And yet, call me a crabby customer if you will,but their last few have underwhelmed me a little.
Frozen’s script was too hastilypasted together to gloss over.
Big Hero 6 was mostly a standard superhero flickin an era drowning in the little blighters, with only Disney sentimentalityand an unbearably cute sidekick to compensate.
Even Zootopia was hit and misswith its comedy and thematic messaging.
Don’t misunderstand me.
These are all good films.
I just wish they were great ones,especially with Zootopia getting as close as it did.
Starting with Tangled,Disney have developed a pattern of half their CG output being fairy tale musicals,and the other half modern comedies.
I’m not going to lie –with one exception regular viewers can easily guess, I’m sure, I find the non-musicals weaker.
Not enough to only want musicals for the future,but weaker nonetheless.
That’s the main reason I’ve been eagerly awaitingMoana.
The film had more going for it too.
Disney was hiring a successful Broadway writer to co-write the music.
It had animal sidekicks that worked.
The visuals looked to do interesting things.
Granted, that’s pretty easy given how restrictive mainstream CG animation always chooses to be,but you get the picture.
Point being, it felt like a film that would makethe old Disney fairy tale tradition work wonders.
I reminded myself to keep my expectations in check.
Moana’s gotten critical and audience acclaimlike Zootopia, and look how it fared.
I’m sure you’re dying to know my opinion by now, folks.
How did the feature fare? Of all the films Disney Animation’s ever made,Moana may be the best… that I couldn’t fall in love with.
Trolls was a decent diversion that managed to be good,and it far surpassed my expectations.
Moana is the best Disney Animation in four years,and I’m still just a tiny bit let down.
But, these opinions are best reservedfor the review’s end, no? Best to crack open the film, and see what it is.
And what Moana is, surprisingly,is Disney’s first original fairy tale musical.
Of course, Frozen’s barely connected to The Snow Queenwhen all is said and done, as is The Princess and the Frog to The Frog Prince.
It reminded me of The Lion King, in that there are someclear inspirations, but its no official adaption.
There, it was Hamlet.
Here, it's Polynesian culture,prominently in the film’s deuteragonist.
The titular Moana, daughter of the island’s chief,is destined to be the next leader.
But she’s always had this fascination with the ocean,despite being forbidden to venture beyond the bay.
Though she doesn’t reject her duty to lead either,so it’s a more layered identity crisis then usual.
But, chaos descends when the island’scrops and fish start to vanish.
With only dying legends to go by,Moana sets off to get the demigod Maui to fix this, finding him to be less then willing,though the ocean itself forces his hand.
Along for the rise is Moana’s pet rooster Heihei,who can be politely described as a cabbage.
First things first: the newcomer that voices Moana,Auli’i Cravalho, is a real wonder, knocking it out of the park.
Especially when singing, she really makes the character.
On the other hand, we have Dwane Johnson as Maui.
He doesn’t sing well, but you get a sense of comittment he gave to the role, so he works.
Helps if you’re a fan of The Rock.
The first thing I got from Moana is that it’sclearly the work of Ron Clements and John Musker.
Auteurship isn’t really something you exceptfrom big-budget animated films, but these two have now made seven films with Disney.
And while its not like the golden era of Pixar,where every film could easily be marked as the creative vision of a specific director, Moana continues the signature toneClements and Musker always bring to their films.
Namely, being more exceedingly comicthen Disney features usually are.
This is mostly a good thing,but alas, there is a tradeoff.
Another trademark of the duo’s featuresis a surfeit of modern gags, starting with Aladdin,where it was an undeniable strength.
Moana is far more like Hercules in that regard,in that it’s loaded with anachronistic jokes.
But where Hercules had a decent batting average,Moana fails to make all but a few of these land.
You’ve all heard the awful tweeting joke by now,I’m sure.
It’s not the worst one, I’m sorry to report.
In particular, Maui oftencheapens the film through his vocabulary.
But, outside of the hideous modern gags,the comedy works.
It is a musical, so what of the music? It works surprisingly well, given it’s composedby three artists from different backgrounds.
Though I felt the score was stronger, the songs provewhat many Disney films since The Little Mermaid have proven: that the music benefit from combiningBroadway traditions with other influences.
In this case, Polynesian music.
The end result is a slate on about Tangled’s level, and above Frozen,though there’s no “Let It Go” showstopper.
Though it does pace its songs,rather then frontloading them and then ceasing to be a musicalaltogether the way Frozen did.
Generally speaking, the more the songs foreground themusical traditions of the culture, the better they fare.
Even Maui’s “You’re Welcome”fares better then expected.
One song even plays with negative space and colorin such a striking manner that it’s quite startling, to its benefit.
Talking of the film’s look,it’s also great in nearly every area.
The water, as you’ve no doubt noticed,is just amazing, an unabashed triumph of the medium.
In a film prominently featuring the ocean,that’s just wonderful.
It’s strong enough to vie with Pinocchio and Ponyoas the best water animation ever produced, retaining the sense of filtered realismDisney effects animation has always thrived at.
I’d teased how the visuals lookedto do interesting things, didn’t I? Well, they do that, and then some.
Several sequences play around in mixed-mediasandboxes, and they all benefit wonderfully from doing so, and are one of several reasons 3Dadds a lot to the viewing experience.
But easily the film’s trump card is Mini Maui.
As you can see, Maui’s drenchedin tattoos depicting his feats.
One of them has a mind of his own,and acts as Maui’s conscience often.
The thing is, he’s all hand-drawn,and it shows so well.
Eric Goldberg, responsible for Aladdin’s Genie,among others, works wonders with him, adapting the classic pantomimeAmerican cartoons have always excelled at.
Oh, and he’s charming andhilariously funny alongside being creative.
The dream marriage of cel and CG animation may berestricted to this character, but it shows so well.
Unfortunately, it highlights the one visual flaw.
The CG character animation.
It does the job.
But it does nothing to fix the same issuethat’s been at Disney for a while now.
The character animation just lacks the sparkPixar and Disney cel animation always had.
The artists clearly have the skill, for there are pencil tests floating aroundthat easily trump the film’s CG character animation.
More prominently is the textures for the humans,who look like they’re covered with plastic or vinyl.
There’s a version of this film in my headthat’s cel animated like the 90’s classics, or has the whole film mergingcel and CG animation like Mini Maui, and that version’s a new personal classic.
Really, though, for the film to only have two flaws,if prominent ones, that’s really nice.
And Moana avoids many other pitfallsof the last few Disney films.
Much like Tangled, it’s heavily committedto using a clear-cut story steeped in Disney lore, but it arguably does it even better.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some shake-ups, and indeed several of the traditions get replacedby Ghibli-esque traditions to better effect, such as a gentle willingness to forgive andcompletely ignoring the threat at the film’s edges.
To my gratitude, the script has a clarityand focus that’s so soothing.
Unlike many Disney films, it actually handlesthe more somber and quiet moments quite well.
I even teared up a little in one scene.
It also slams the door on the irritating secret villainreveal they’ve been playing for the last four films and failed at for all but the first.
I’m so glad for that.
And Moana herself is a tremendously satisfying heroine, with the complexity and personalityof the best Disney protagonists.
This makes two great female leadsDisney Animation’s given us this year.
Couple that with The Force Awakens and Rogue One,and Disney’s certainly giving us strong heroines that benefit from being so, rather then half-baked onesbecause some executive demanded it.
I hold Disney Animation in a stronger light then mostsince they’re going to be watched for decades to come.
That leaves the final film in an interesting spot.
The atrocious modern gags and underwhelmingcharacter animation keep it from being top-tier.
But, if you haven’t personally found such issues in recent Disney Animation, you probably won’t notice them here.
I still recommend Moana wholeheartedly to everyone,even if you share my opinion on the above flaws.
And while I still wish for the amazing versionof the film that this one nearly reaches, a really good Disney film is a really good Disney film,and those deserve to be treasured.
Thanks for watching the review, folks.
As always,I’m your host, Mike Culligan, of Cartoon Karma.
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