March 4, 2017

Blu-Ray Review: MOANA

Starring the voices of Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk. Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker. (2016, 107 min).

The second Disney renaissance continues with Moana, and if you're of a certain age, a sense of deja vu might creep in. You can't quite place your finger on it, but aside from the CG animation, there's something comfortingly familiar about the film that recalls the glory days of the first Disney renaissance.

Perhaps it's because Moana is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind The Little Mermaid, which arguably  made Disney animation relevant again. Despite the relative anonymity of most Disney directors, there was something distinctive about Clements & Musker's films throughout the 80s and 90s (which included Aladdin & Hercules). Though not always necessarily better, they were slightly more irreverent, the character depictions more imaginatively exaggerated, the musical numbers more effectively woven into the plots themselves (as opposed to isolated set-pieces).

Moana is their first fully CG animated feature, but their familiar stamp is everywhere and it's easily their best film since Aladdin.

"Boat? What boat?"
The title character is the daughter of Tui, her overprotective father & the village chief of the South Pacific island, Motunui. Though next in succession to lead their people, she yearns to venture beyond the reef and explore the ocean. When the their crops and trees start to mysteriously die, Moana's grandmother tells her why: a thousand years ago, the heart of the island goddess, Te Fiti, was stolen by the demigod, Maui, who in-turn was defeated by the lava demon, Te K, and banished to a remote island. The ocean itself chooses Moana to find Maui so he can return the heart to Te Fiti before everything dies.

The story is perfect Disney fodder, fraught with peril and epiphanies. And of course, it's impeccably animated, but at this point, is the quality of Disney animation a bone of contention anymore? What distinguishes Moana from the likes of Tangled and Frozen are the distinctive Clements/Musker touches. The imaginative rendering of Maui reflects the same level of creativity (from the animated tattoos to Dwayne Johnson's amusing voice performance) given to the genie in Aladdin. The obligatory non-human sidekick provides some of the funniest moments (made more amusing after we're initially led to believe it's the 'cuter' animal that'll be tagging along). As for the songs, not only are they memorable, they are a major part of the plot and character development (you can't really say that about "Let it Go"). And yes, in the context of the film, Johnson can actually sing without embarrassing himself.

Future club sandwiches.
On a side note, speaking of you wonder if he wakes up every morning, catches a glance of himself in the mirror and just laughs, basking in the fact he's Dwayne Johnson? He's almost obscenely likable and hardly fails at anything, which includes his work here. This isn't stunt casting; Johnson is a Pacific Islander himself, as is most of the cast, and he's terrific as Maui. Newcomer Auli'i Cravalho shines as the title character and is equipped with one hell of a set of pipes.

Storywise, Moana adheres to the tried & true Disney formula that has served them well over the years (though the climax is almost too reminiscent of the "Firebird Suite" sequence in Fantasia 2000). So while it's not as strikingly original as Zootopia, Clements and Musker's unique touches give Moana a distinct voice among Disney's other recent blockbusters..

"Voice of the Islands" - The longest and best of the bonus features, the directors travel to the Pacific Island region for inspiration. We get a look at its people and their culture, and how both helped shape the film. It also made me really want to visit.
"Things You Didn't Know About..." - The lead voice actors and soundtrack composers answer rapid-fire question on a variety of silly subjects.
"The Elements of..." - 4 part featurette on the challenge of animating such things as water, lava and characters' hair.
"Island Fashion"; "They Know the Way: Making the Music of Moana"; "Fishing for Easter Eggs" (titles tell all about these three features.
AUDIO COMMENTARY - By directors Ron Clements & John Musker.
2 ANIMATED SHORTS: "Gone Fishing" & "Inner Workings" - The first feels like the usual Disney promotional short, while the second is original, creative and visually interesting. The latter also features an introduction by the producer and director.
DELETED SONG: "Warrior Face"
2 MUSIC VIDEOS: Both for "How Far I'll Go" - One features Alessia Cara, the other is sung in various other languages.

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