***1/2 out of ****
It is strange to observe that Disney’s computer animation has advanced to the point of being more photogenic than a lot of live action films that have been digitally color-graded beyond resembling the gorgeous potential of our world.
In their new animated musical, Moana, there is a musical number where the characters are surrounded by two-dimensional hand-drawn animation and I was reminded of movies like Mary Poppins for how it combined live action people and cell-drawn animation. In this case, everything is animated, which is amazing considering the variety of style that is exploding from the screen.
Moana comes from a team of writers and directors, some of whom worked on recent projects like Big Hero 6, and other more seasoned artists responsible for films like Aladdin. It is a vibrant escape and a gorgeous spectacle to behold on the big screen. The bright blue skies, ocean waves and character designs are all masterfully rendered while possessing perfect combinations of realism and artistic manipulation in their presence.
Inspired by Polynesian folklore, the story is a fantasy about an isolated island whose people live a happy existence that is supposedly free from an ancient curse said to be spreading throughout the ocean. As Moana (voice of Auli'i Cravalho - her first role), a future leader of her island, deals with new troubles like bad crops and less fish in the ocean to catch, she suspects that the curse has reached their land.
Knowing that she has secretly possessed a power to communicate with the ocean, she defies her father’s law for everyone to stay on the island, and sets out on a voyage to find a herculean demigod (the voice of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) - ostensibly responsible for causing the ancient curse - in order to make things right.
Along the way, strange and unusual obstacles are encountered, including a giant crustacean (voice of Jemaine Clement – doing his David Bowie impression) and some Mad Max-like pirates in the form of vicious coconuts. Otherwise, the story goes down a very typical path, but not in a boring way. The atmosphere of the film is too breathtaking to cram complexity into its narrative, so I’m unsure if repeat viewings will reveal a strong story. What matters, is that everything about this odyssey feels focused.
Following Disney’s recent princess musicals Tangled and Frozen, Moana feels familiar for giving its lead more emphasis as a heroine. This time there isn’t even a love-interest. While I admire this new movement in their storytelling, I hope that it doesn’t become a redundant formula and that they keep inventing new types of stories.
I’m not sure if this film needed to be a musical, but I’m glad that they’ve reached a point of moderation, alternating between songs and no songs with the animated films they put out every year. I remember back in the nineties when they just about did their musical shtick to death. The songs in Moana, like their other recent princess films walk that line between classic Broadway show tunes and tacky modern pop music. These songs won’t be on my iTunes playlist, but I can’t deny that they’re pretty catchy.
With my first child on the way, there is a chance that in a few years, I’ll be among a world of parents who regularly have Disney songs sung at them day and night. Until then, I can take delight in experiencing the sweet magic of movies like Moana at my own leisure. Recommended.