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An adventurous teenager and chief’s daughter named Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) sets out on a daring, sea-bound mission to find the mighty demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), fulfill the ancient quest of her ancestors, save her people, and discovers the one thing she's always sought: her own identity. (From Disney’s official synopsis)

 Moana
For the first time since 1999, when Fantasia 2000 and Tarzan debut in cinemas about six months apart, Walt Disney Animation Studios (not Pixar, DisneyToon/MovieToons Studios, or any other animation house distributed via Disney) releases two feature-length animated films – Zootopia and Moana. Given how different the two movies are from each other, it would be interesting if this became a new model for the studio. Each is firmly planted in ratified, money-making conventions (cute anthropomorphic critters and a plucky princess coming of age) yet represents a slight course correction for Disney in terms of cultural awareness. Zootopia is a not-at-all-subtle metaphor for real-world race relations and Moana is based on Pacific Island/Oceanic mythology/legends, rather than the same tired European traditions that were bled dry throughout the early years of feature animation. However, Zootopia also bucked the studio’s established storytelling trends (by borrowing its narrative from similarly established criminal drama trends), while Moana is, for all intents and purposes, a typical Disney princess movie gussied up in an exotic lore and locations. At the risk of implying that Zootopia is an entirely successful experiment (it’s okay) or that applying non-European tropes to the princess formula is a bad thing (I’m all for it), I will admit that Moana is the less interesting of the two experiments.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Disney has bucked the European tradition for a princess movie. Assuming that Aladdin (1992) doesn’t count, because the main character is a faux-prince, they’ve built movies around a Native American (Powhatan) princess ( Pocahontas, 1995), a Chinese pseudo-princess ( Mulan, 1998), and an African American princess ( The Princess and the Frog, 2009), to mixed results. In every case, the filmmakers were forced to strike a delicate balance between celebrating a culture without exploiting, oversimplifying, or demeaning it for the sake of easily digested, child-friendly entertainment value. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker – the gentlemen behind The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, and others – are not culturally Oceanic people, nor are any of the seven other credited writers who reworked half-Maori, uncredited writer Taika Waititi’s ( What We Do in the Shadows, 2014; Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 2016) initial screenplay.

 Moana
Not surprisingly, Moana pays homage to the Oceanic traditions in broad strokes. Those of us that aren’t already engaged in the culture likely see it as a joyful celebration, one that takes every opportunity to pluck the heartstrings with its arresting imagery and tickle the funny bone with its charming, super-expressive character animation (I particularly adore the way Moana keeps sweeping the wet hair from her face). For good measure, the story is populated with not one, but two cute animal companions, adorable anthropomorphic coconuts (basically ‘evil’ versions of the Kodama from Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, 1997) – even the ocean itself has a perky personality. On top Disney doing its Disney things well, Moana has a strong message of female empowerment, on par with Mulan and perhaps even stronger than the (comparatively) subtle/subtext-laden feminist angles of Frozen (2013). But the filmmakers also made the usual ‘outsider’ mistakes, namely, they took it for granted that they could boil important religious figures and mythology down to a pleasant essence of culture that wouldn’t seem foreign to worldwide audiences (in the filmmakers’ defense, they did discuss their work with ‘cultural representatives’ during pre-production, according to the special features on this disc).

The biggest complaints from actual Pacific Islanders pertained to the use of Maui himself, who is voiced by and designed to look kind of like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (shape-shifting aside, Johnson could’ve probably played the character in live action, no problem) and tends to steal the show as the lovably egocentric secondary lead (fortunately, it’s still mostly Moana’s movie and she’s never treated as a damsel in distress). Maui’s buffoonish arrogance has been called insulting and members of the Oceanic community have expressed frustration at the absence of Hina-a-ke-ahi (or Hina), the goddess who Maui is often tied to. Personally, I’m not very knowledgeable in these matters and am not comfortable judging the film solely on its cultural insensitivity (“...then what’s the deal with that last paragraph, Gabe?”). Fortunately for me, there are also some objectively dicey storytelling issues. While the unstoppable pace is infectious, the narrative is sort of a jumble of exposition, musical numbers, action set-pieces, and exposition-heavy musical numbers that double as action set-pieces. Themes and characters are developed via handsome, but stifling montage sequences, not unlike the cut scenes between the boss fights of a video game. Moana’s emotional beats are all achieved with shortcuts and recycled pastiche. As a result, it doesn’t have the resonance of Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) or Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea (2014), both animated films developed around established cultural legends.

 Moana

Video


Moana was constructed completely within the computer and designed for both 2D and 3D digital projection. This review pertains to the standard-issue, 1080p, 2D Blu-ray, which is framed at a wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio, given the film an epic feel even without the benefit of a big screen or 3D. There isn’t a whole lot to say about this transfer, other than it looks as clean and vibrant as you’d expect from a multi-million dollar CG cartoon. That said, Moana also has photorealistic elements, specifically its lush jungle and oceanic backdrops. There is a general softness – the kind that coincides with most CG movies aimed at children – but, aside from stylized focus shifts (utilized to push the 3D effect, I assume), most shots are brimming with front-to-back texture and complex patterns. The image is constantly busy and shifts between smooth daylight gradations and harsh nighttime/interior contrasts, all with only the slightest hint of noise and zero edge enhancement. Colour quality is eclectic and vivid, especially the rich greens and blues of the virtual Hawaiian locations and the tiki lounge neons of the Realm of Monsters.

Audio


Moana is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound. The dialogue and basic effects work is about average for this type of movie. The sea and jungle locations offer plenty of subtle environmental ambience and movement, even when the characters aren’t engaging in particularly adventurous antics. Music is the vital audio component, though Mark Mancina’s score coincides with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (yeah, the Hamilton guy) and Opetaia Foa'i from the contemporary South Pacific fusion band Te Vaka. The poppier tunes are spread mostly over the front channels, but the score, the more choral songs, and the percussion all utilize the surround and LFE speakers quite well. Music also tends to stand in for super elaborate sound effects during the biggest action scenes, as well, though the biggest set-pieces (the Kakamora pirate attack, for example) are still quite active in terms of its intricate, multi-directional design.

 Moana

Extras


  • Audio Commentary with directors Ron Clements and John Musker – This pleasant, though incredibly soft-spoken track (seriously, speak up, guys) moves along efficiently and includes some informative morsels about the changes that the film went through during production and the various inspirations behind certain scenes and characters, alongside less interesting praise of the cast and crew.
  • Inner Workings (6:26, plus :48 filmmaker intro, HD) – A businessman named Paul finds balance between his disciplined brain and his fun-loving heart in this clever, creative, and cute theatrical short that was screened in front of Moana.
  • Maui Mini-Movie: Gone Fishing (2:29, HD) – Moana hinders an impatient Maui’s attempts at fishing in this mostly musical short.
  • Voice of the Islands (31:13, HD) – This featurette follows the extensive trips that the filmmakers took to the South Pacific for research after choosing to make the movie. It’s includes interviews with islanders and other cultural experts, as well as beautiful footage of the area.
  • Things You Didn’t Know About:
    • Ron, John, Auli’i & Dwayne (2:02, HD) – Quick facts with the directors and two leading cast members.
    • Mark, Opetaia & Lin-Manuel (1:57, HD) – Another speedy Q&A with the musical crew.
  • Island Fashion (5:13, HD) – A look at visual development with costume designer Neysa Bové.
  • The Elements of…[/i]:
    • Mini Maui (3:34, HD) – A look at the mix of 2D and 3D animation used to create "Mini Maui,” Maui’s tattoo sidekick.
    • Water (4:38, HD) – The technical aspects of turning water itself into an expressive character.
    • Lava (2:56, HD) – A similar look at the design, animation, and effects of Te Kā, the lava monster.
    • Hair (3:05, HD) – Concerning the challenges of improving CG hair technology.
  • They Know the Way: Making the Music of Moana (12:37, HD) – Foa'i, Mancina, and Miranda talk about the process of writing and performing the film’s songs & score.
  • “Warrior Face” deleted song reel with introduction by Lin-Manuel Miranda (3:41, HD)
  • Fishing for Easter Eggs (2:52, HD) – Cravalho and Johnson host a round-up of Easter egg references to other Disney movies hidden throughout Moana.
  • Seven deleted scenes with optional director introductions (25:56, HD)
  • “How Far I’ll Go” music video performed by Alessia Cara (3:04, HD)
  • “How Far I’ll Go” multi-language reel (2:44, HD)


 Moana

Overall


Moana is a charming, beautiful, and entertaining romp that nevertheless, feels like a lesser effort in the current animation climate. The filmmakers also deserves credit for their cultural diversity, both for social and storytelling reasons, even if they are guilty of oversimplifying and westernizing uniquely foreign legends. I can only assume that they’ll try harder next time. This Blu-ray is expectedly gorgeous (with slight compression noise), sounds great, and has a better than expected collection of supplements.

 Moana

 Moana
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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