Thursday, March 23, 2017

Catching Up: "Moana"


It's quite a strange fault for a movie to have, but Moana just has too much going on.  You can't fault the filmmakers for having too many ideas -- except that, well, yes, you can.

It begins with a trickster demi-god who steals the heart of an island, then shifts its focus to a young woman whose heart yearns to see more than her small, provincial home.  Somehow, the ocean, or rather The Ocean, since its water has a personality of its own in Moana, chooses the girl to find the heart of that island, which is a small stone that must be restored to its rightful home, because -- and this is where I started getting a little lost -- the life force of the island from which it has been removed is depleting surrounding islands.

This isn't a simple story, even though for long, long stretches of this nearly two-hour film there are just two people on a small boat in the middle of a large ocean, which is generally not a compelling dramatic setup, Life of Pi notwithstanding.  And it requires a lot of manipulating in order to put Moana in just the right place in the vast, vast ocean.  Machinas ex from the deus quite frequently in Moana, complicating and frustrating efforts to really love it.

The biggest shame of all of that is that Moana has so very much to recommend it.  When you strip away the long, unnecessary sequence of weird (and adorable) coconut-shelled pirates that doesn't take the story anywhere, or the even longer and more unnecessary sequence involving a fluorescent, glam-rocker crab who sings a long and forgettable song, Moana is sometimes beautiful and sometimes wonderful.

It's the third time Disney has used the Pacific islands for inspiration, and as a whole, Moana doesn't compare entirely favorably with Lilo and Stitch or the all-too-brief but entirely splendid short film Lava.  Yet its rich and beautiful visuals, its strong characters and its warm spirit make it a nice effort, in spite of heaping plot point upon plot point.

The notion of a Polynesian girl who sets sail to search for a way to save her own island and its people is one with great inherent appeal -- by its very nature, it sets up a story of someone who needs to prove physical strength, personal courage and emotional upheaval, and there's something so innately beautiful about Polynesian culture that Moana has everything going for it.

So how does the film end up bogged down with so many extraneous characters and elaborate plot complexities?  It searches mightily, and rather unsuccessfully, to find a villain to counter the strength of Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho), and while the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) is a fun and funny guy, he ends up largely being along for the ride -- there because the story demands she find him, and once she does, they search for interesting things to do together.

As it stretches and stretches its thin story even further, it's easy to long for the days when a Disney animated film was considered lengthy at 80 minutes, when extraneous plot was anathema to the Disney way of storytelling.  A Young Woman and the Sea kind of approach, with Moana guided by the spirit of her recently deceased grandmother, could have made a terrifically lean and focused movie, because Moana seems overwhelmed by its story excesses.

Strip it all away, and you're left with a few truly splendid songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina and a wonderful story about the journeys people take to figure out how they fit into the world.  Moana's journey of self-discovery and growth wisely does not require a love interest in Moana -- but it would have been even wiser for it not to have digressed quite so frequently.  Its meanderings lose the focus of what's really important: the way that a perilous journey can define the soul.

In that, Moana finally does deliver on its emotional promises, and does so with genuine satisfaction, but it takes the long way round the ocean to get there.  The very long way round.

Viewed March 23, 2017 -- Blu-ray

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