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Beyond the sea - 'Moana'

November 26, 2016
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Latest Disney film features engaging characters, catchy songs

While there are plenty of studios out there producing first-rate animated fare, the reality is that Disney remains the gold standard. These relative newcomers would have to spend decades producing top-notch work to ascend to the heights already scaled by Big Mouse.

However, Disney isn't resting on their laurels. While one could argue that there was a bit of a lull in the early 00s (assuming that Pixar is considered as its own separate entity), recent years have seen them putting forth some exceptional films.

Just in the past four years, Walt Disney Animation Studios were responsible for 'Wreck-It Ralph,? 'Frozen,? 'Big Hero 6? and 'Zootopia? ' massive critical and commercial successes all ' before closing out 2016 with their latest offering, the Pacific Islands-centric 'Moana.?

According to legend, there once was a goddess named Te Fiti who gave life to all the islands of the sea. But the source of her power ' a small stone that served as her heart ' was stolen by the trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne 'The Rock? Johnson, 'Central Intelligence?). However, Maui was attacked soon afterward by the lava monster Te Ka; in the fight, Maui lost both the heart and his magic fishhook ' the source of his power ' to the ocean.

Thousands of years later, we meet Moana (Auli'i Cravalho in her feature debut). She lives in an island paradise that is disconnected from the rest of the world. Her father is Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison, 'The Patriarch?); she is being raised to assume leadership of the village. But her heart is drawn to the sea, despite her father's many warnings about never going past the reef that surrounds the island. Moana dreams of exploring and chafes at the thought of her sedentary destiny ' especially since the ocean chose her as its champion when she was just a toddler, placing the heart in her care.

But when a creeping darkness starts to attack the island, Moana searches for a way to help. Thanks to the encouragement of her sardonic and unconventional Gramma Tala (Rachel House, 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople?) - the one who shared with Moana the stories of Maui - she sets out to sail across the ocean to find the demigod and enlist his help to restore Te Fiti's heart and save them all.

Alas, it's never that easy.

See, Maui has been stranded on an isolated island ever since his long-ago confrontation with Te Ka; even when Moana finds him, he has very little interest in helping her. Even thousands of years have done little to temper his ego and arrogance; all he wants is to escape the island, regain his magic fishhook and embark on more self-serving adventures.

Despite some reluctance and misgivings on both sides, Moana and Maui join forces and set sail across the vast ocean in an effort to track down Maui's hook and make their way to Te Fiti's island and restore her to her full glory. Along the way, Moana and Maui learn more about one another ' and about themselves.

'Moana? feels like a film that sort of straddles the line between the traditional and the modern in terms of what Disney Animation tends to bring to the table. Structurally, it bears more of a resemblance to the classics of the animated renaissance of the early 1990s, but tonally, it's more in tune with 21st century offerings. It makes sense ' the directorial team includes people from both eras; guys like Ron Clements and John Musker directed classics like 'The Little Mermaid? and 'Aladdin,? while Don Hall and Chris Williams helmed modern offerings like 'Big Hero 6.? That blending is an ideal marriage for a movie like this, one aiming for a combination of old-school and new. There's a tongue-in-cheek quality to the proceedings that manages to both celebrate and subvert the genre conventions for which Disney is known.

There's a beautiful look to the movie, with a meticulous level of detail to the animation. From large-scale characters to tiny moments, it all comes together with a vivid lushness that is captivating to see. The water work is particularly joyful, as is the work with Maui's tattoos (trust me, you're going to want to pay attention).

Ultimately, the success of a film like this rests largely on the relationship dynamic at its center ' and in that regard, 'Moana? is indeed successful. Cravalho's performance would be excellent from any actress, but the fact that this is her first real gig makes her work doubly impressive. Her sweetness has sharp edges, making her a wonderfully engaging character. There's a lot of heavy lifting for her and she handles it like a champ.

And speaking of champs?The Rock is magnificent as usual. One might have questioned whether Johnson could carry the day without relying on his imposing physical charisma; consider that question answered. He's great here. Legitimately great. He's a perfect choice for the brash, boastful Maui, capturing the spirit of the character with ease. Oh, and he totally nails his big song too, because there's literally nothing that man can't do.

Speaking of the songs ' they're great. Lin-Manuel Miranda got much of the attention for his contributions, but fellow contributors Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina did plenty to create a catchy and complex soundtrack. Highlights include 'We Know the Way,? 'Shiny? (sung by an outstanding Jemaine Clement) and the Rock-led 'You're Welcome.?

'Moana? might not achieve the massive cultural ubiquity of a 'Frozen,? but there's no denying that it is a worthy addition to the Disney Animation canon. It is heartfelt and funny, with compelling characters, an adventurous narrative and some excellent songs.

So set sail with 'Moana? ' you'll be glad you did.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 04 December 2016 13:42

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