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REVIEW: Moana (film)

MOANA (2016)
Directors:  Ron Clements, Don Hall
Writers:  Jared Bush (screenplay), Ron Clements (story by)
Stars:  Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House
Technical: 103 mins., 2.35:1, English, Dolby

Let's see...

Disney logo, check
Ethnic princess, check
Glorification of genetic monarchy, check
Trivializing, stereotyping and monetizing a rich cultural heritage, check
Animal sidekick comic relief, check
Omnipotent magical characters, check
Plug 'n' Play formula, check

Yes, it's yet another Disney signature animated feature poised to empty parents' pockets for licensed merchandise and follow-on video games, with shelves full of dolls, story books and other crap that will be sold on eBay in 25 years as genuine collectors' items.

Take any Disney signature animated feature.  Replace the characters with genies or snowmen or Polynesian demi-gods.  Add a cute animal that pops up at just the right moments to provide a chuckle or two.  Add a slim, empowered princess-type and her sidekick.  Insert into a story that blends five or six different mythos with a stereotypical rendition of some ethnic group.  POOF!  You have a Disney phenomenon.

OK so before I completely trash this film, at least let me get the well-deserved praise out of the way.

The computer-generated, 24-frame-per-minute, full-color animation is gorgeous.  The water, hair and sand textures are truly marvelous to behold.  The camera work is taut, with every shot and move planned to the Nth degree.  The lighting is amazing, with the state-of-the-art ray tracing in abundant view.  The character movements are natural and fluid with a resolution that is mind-boggling.

The score is what one would expect - a single, catchy song that remains stuck in your head as you walk out of the cinema, with a dozen or so inoffensive fillers, fully orchestrated with voices that are clear and pitch-perfect.

The strange thing about this film is the obvious (to me) metaphor for terraforming other planets, specifically Mars, and the need to get off of Earth because we've used up all her resources.  Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but the main theme of the story is rediscovering the ancient art of navigating by the stars to reach a legendary lost land, which magically transforms from a barren, sandy waste into a lush tropical jungle just waiting for human colonists.

Maybe my imagination is just a bit overactive, or I am one of those people who see messages everywhere, but this movie just reeks of metaphor and allegory.  A people maintain myths and legends of lost civilizations and technologies.  One brave soul strikes off to prove not only that the ancient technology does exist, but with an understanding of the myths and the help of the "gods" that it is the key to new lands and a glorious future.

I know, I know...I'm probably giving Disney Studios far too much credit for being clever and profound, but you watch this flick and tell me if you don't see the same thing.  Even my wife, who I would not characterize as a strong media critic, got the "destiny" message loud and clear, she just put it in religious terms, though the "global" meme came through to her, as well.

Given that I am about to otherwise trash this film, I have to think I have an overactive imagination, because kid-flicks can't be that interesting.

My biggest - and really only - criticism is that this film is exactly what you would expect in every detail if you've seen any Disney signature animated feature during the last 30 years.  There is exactly nothing that is new or fresh or even unexpected.  From the opening line, you can practically run the entire dialogue in your head before you are five minutes into the film.  In fact, about the only thing that stands out in a Disney feature for the last 30 years is that Aladdin  and Simba were male title characters.

Disney Studios seems to be on a multi-decadal romp through every culture that does or has existed.  By now, we have been charged to see the same formula applied to Russia, Greece, Arabia, France, China, Sweden, Africa (no country or culture given), and the ocean in general.  About all that is left is South America (no tribe or culture given) and the Phoenicians.

Every Disney animated feature (and quite a few live-action too) since Cinerella has a prince or princess on the brink of inheriting the crown, setting off on a vision quest to at least make it seem like they are leaders, since the only other qualification they have is genetic.  Even Cinderella is from an aristocratic family and marries a prince, and Aladdin is a "prince" of thieves who marries into the royal gene pool.  It seems that Disney Studios is pining for the glory days of inherited power.  There are even a couple of lines in this film that tell us the folks behind the scenes are aware of what they are doing.

In this film, the eponymous princess is ready to assume the reins of power over her serfs.  There's a scene where this pubescent autocrat deigns to tell her subjects where to fish or plant a new coconut grove, as if she has within her chromosomes far greater wisdom than the generations of fishermen and coconut-picking women, as she points and orders folks around.

Moana sets off on a quest to find a mythical land with the aid of a chicken, an enigmatic ocean and a demi-god called Maui.  Maui is a Polynesian Thor, who wields a "hook," rather than a hammer, and can turn into a giant eagle, rather than summon one.  He looks Samoan, but he is covered in tattoos like a Maoi.

The impetus for Moana's journey is that her people have over-fished and over-farmed their island (a la Easter Island), but a generations-old curse caused by Maui causes them to fear leaving the safety of their reef-encircled lagoon.  Moana, of course, receives a vision that she is the Chosen One who will lift the curse, learn to navigate the open seas with her hand, and find the new Promised Land.

I really liked the chicken, by the way.

Needless to say, it's a happy ending and the serfs end up bowing and scraping to Moana like good little servants.  Lest the Reader think this is a spoiler, then you have probably never seen a Disney signature animated feature before, but after this film, you will have seen them all.

Moana belies an almost pathological fear of stepping outside the boundaries of formula.  If you've seen enough of these films, you can almost pick out the bits and pieces of the previous films that are strung together with different settings to create product after product.  One could be forgiven if one assumed that Disney Studios was run by a sinister automatron that cranked out new properties on a biennial basis, complete with sound-alike scores and lyrics.

About the only thing that got my attention, besides the stunning quality of the animation, was that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (Maui) can sing, unless he was dubbed or AutoTuned, in which case I retract this statement.

Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Unless you are 3 years old and history only began with the election last month, or you are a teen-aged boy looking to feel up Daisy Mae in the back row, you can safely skip this film.  There are far better outings, such as Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.  And when it comes to this formula, the classics like Snow White and Cinderella did it far better and hand-drawn and colored, no less.

Formulas work for medicine and chefs, but in the creative arts, it's a soul-killer and eventually folks get the feeling you are just hypnotizing them while digging in their pockets and wallets.

All that being said, I can't shake the impression that Disney Studios just told the world that the secret to human survival lies in the ancient knowledge and technology hidden in our mythologies, and that our collective destiny lies in terraforming and colonizing other worlds.  If this message was intentional, then I can forgive all the formulaic clap-trap and saccharine culture, since it serves a much deeper and more interesting purpose.

I just hate giving Disney that much credit, though.

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