Friday, December 9, 2016

Moana

3/4

Starring (voices): Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Sherzinger

Rated PG for Peril, Some Scary Images and Brief Thematic Elements

In general, Disney animated movies don't take many risks.  Their target audiences (kids) don't demand sophisticated plots and character depth.  Nor is unconventional storytelling sought (or desired).  The House of Mouse has essentially diluted the art of making a family movie down to a science.  If it has colorful images, broad comedy, a strong lead, cute supporting characters and an easy to follow story, it'll be a success.  So within those boundaries, and "Moana" never treads close to the edges, their newest entry works.

Years ago, the demigod Maui stole the heart of the island goddess, Te Fiti, intending to give humans the power over life.  But that let the lava demon Te Ka loose, causing destruction (and the loss of Maui's mighty fish hook).

A thousand years later, the island of Matanui and its inhabitants are safe because they don't venture beyond the reef that encloses the island.  But Moana (Cravalho), the daughter of the chieftan (Morrison), hungers to explore.  Her father is resolutely against it, but her grandmother Tala (House), encourages her to follow her heart.  When the idyllic life on their island is threatened, Moana must take the voyage herself to find Maui, reclaim his hook, and replace Te Fiti's heart.

There's very little in "Moana" that feels fresh, and that's both a strength and a weakness.  It makes the film safe and easy to digest, but it also makes it rather generic.  Make that very generic.  The seasoning is different, but it's the same dish nonetheless.

At least the voice acting is on the money.  Newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, found after an international search, is delightful, filling the title character with energy and spirit.  Or, referencing a film set in the same culture starring another member of the cast, "mana."  Dwayne Johnson, originally not a fan of Hollywood actors doing voice actors, is also in fine form.  The ex-wrestler continues to mature as an actor and expand his range.  And, to my surprise, he has a nice singing voice.  Temuera Morrison adds heart and understanding to a generic role.  My hope is that he will get more roles in the future.  God knows that if you can give a performance like he did in "Once Were Warriors," you should come first over posers like Bryan Cranston.

The film was co-directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who were responsible for some of the entries in the New Golden Age of Disney, such as "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and the 2009 throwback "The Princess and the Frog."  It's not as good as any of those, but it's still fun.

If there's anything that "Moana" lacks, it's risk.  Everything in here is too safe, too controlled, too...expected.  There are little moments here and there that are great (such as an attack by pirates of magical coconuts), but it doesn't do much to distinguish itself.  A little something extra to set it apart from the rest, such as a stronger screenplay or catchier songs (they're effective, but not likely to last long in the memory), would have gotten this a higher rating.

As it is, it's still worth seeing for those who love Disney movies.

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