MovieBob Reviews: MOANA | Movies | Geek.com

Ever since they revived the Princess thing with Tangled, Disney Animation’s favorite new schtick has been post-modernism: Subverting small pieces of their well-worn, frequently-criticized formula as a way of excusing sticking to that same formula in other areas; i.e. Frozen upending a bunch of the gender and power tropes while keeping the big-song/merchandise-sidekick game strong, or Zootopia bringing back the anthropomorphic animal gimmick but then going “okay, but what if it’s also a political satire?”

So at first it’s somewhat jarring that Moana seems like the most conventional feature they’ve put out since I can’t even remember when – to the extent that it often feels like a storyline that’s been Voltron’d together from the studio’s Greatest Hits catalogue: Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but our main character is a headstrong young woman of royal lineage from a highly tradition-bound society who dreams of following her heart to a different destiny, teams up with a wacky animal sidekick and a scene-stealing shape-shifter and embarks on a disaster-averting mission that turns into a journey of self-discovery that leads to across-the-board reconciliation.

However, it also seems clear that this derivative setup is part of the point. Because Moana’s most prominent mission statement is very clearly rehabilitating the cinematic and pop-cultural presence of indigenous Polynesian cultures that Western storytellers (Disney itself most definitely included) have previously relegated to set-dressing and disempowered stereotypes; so perhaps the calculation here is that showing said culture to be compatible with the Disney Princess iconography factory is meant to be the engine of that rehabilitation.

To wit: Moana is the Chieftan-to-be of an ancient Pacific Island tribe whose members are raised to fear venturing beyond their protective reef because of an epidemic of monsters and supernatural forces plaguing the wider ocean. But Moana – who secretly possesses a magic ability to communicate with the sea itself – believes that said oceanic chaos and environmental degradation will soon imperil her island as well, so she defies her stern but loving father and heads out on her own to fix things by enlisting the disgraced demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as, effectively, a hybrid of Gaston and The Genie) to help restore a stolen relic whose theft is blamed for unleashing the forces of darkness.

And if Moana’s main goal is indeed to gift Polynesian and indigenous peoples in general with a fresh cinematic hero narrative that not only celebrates a Disneyfied variation on their cultural mythology but also reinforces their often overlooked and/or deliberately suppressed contributions to the history of exploration and thus human civilization? Well, then on that front at least it’s an unqualified success. It’s a heroic, celebratory, affirming story about a people and culture who just simply never get those kind of stories told about them on this grand of scale, and that’s an important feat so decidedly accomplished that it really does render other criticisms decidedly secondary.

But, still, apart from that it in the structural nitty-gritty details it does end up feeling a bit overly familiar and doesn’t quite take off and soar like the best of these things do: The songs are solid if not showstopping – The Rock gets the “funny song, ” and it turns out to be the best of the bunch (though it’s also pretty cool that several of them are partially or completely sung in Tokelauan language) – and while there’s novelty in most of the movie just being Moana and Maui working their various issues out while stuck on a sailboat together you can pretty-much work out the exact beats of where their arcs are going within the first few minutes.

That said: I did find it interesting that we now seem to have moved ahead a step in the evolution of “Disney Princess” archetypes reimagined as empowerment figures, in as much as – like Frozen’s Queen Elsa – it’s already a foregone conclusion as the film opens that Moana is going to be the leader of her people and nobody makes an issue of that: The big schism is that her father is an isolationist leader and she’s an explorer who thinks her people need to break tradition and go global (topical!) – the fact that she’s a girl? Never comes up. Nobody in the movie acts like her gender is in any way tied to what she should or shouldn’t do, and the movie doesn’t make a big deal out of this (or congratulate itself for not doing so.) I also like that they ultimately try to do something genuinely different with the villain this time around. Plus… yeah, it’s not a “surprise” that the animation is genuinely gorgeous but still the sheer level of artistry and technique on display is astonishing – this is one of the best-looking movies of the year.

I wasn’t blown away by Moana, but I liked it a lot. It’s a solid if largely unspectacular Disney entry, the kids are probably going to love it, and “memorable” or not you walk out with a good feeling. Recommended.

MovieBob Reviews: MOANA | Movies | Geek.com

MovieBob Reviews: MOANA | Movies | Geek.com

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