Moana’s beautiful specificity wrestles with its generic instincts

Formula is not necessarily poison for a film. Look, we have to accept that studio filmmaking is its own mode and purpose, and the beats that we hit are hit for a reason. At the big-budget, the level of multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and the star-studded cast and crew, only one out of every 20 or 30 may have any interesting narrative twists or innovations.

All this is to say that yeah, Moana is hitting all of the recent Disney films’ plot points for narrative gain and for narrative loss. Accepting that means that evaluating these films becomes about the shading they bring, how they deal with and color the familiar. In that, Moana has much to admire.

Moana is the story of a young girl, Moana (Auli’i Cravallo), who is next in line to be Chieftan of Motunui Island. In her heart though, she wants to explore, the ocean calls her to sail, an instinct her father (Temeura Morrison) seeks to keep down for her own safety. But when an encroaching darkness threatens Moana’s home, she must sail out and find the boisterous demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), so that she can enlist his help to save the world.

So, from about Ratatouille to Brave, Pixar had a bit of a problem. While one of their most famous runs of quality, the films were imbalanced, frontloaded with absolutely brilliant first acts and petering out somewhere around the second to go from great to good.

The Second Disney Renaissance has been marked by a similar problem. Disney’s recent run of incredible animation (Wreck-It Ralph through now) have shown a remarkable emotional maturity and visual cleverness. But they’ve all been cursed by second act problems out the ass, with the exception of Zootopia. These films have amazing first acts and emotionally resonant thirds that follow perfectly out of their first. But the second act seems to be a thin glue intended to hold the two together, usually wandering idly through a few setpieces of whatever it takes until the actual climax needs to start.

And so it goes with Moana. The first act is a remarkable and beautiful look at a culture and a character piece about a girl who struggles with it. The third act is a touching piece of empowerment that inspires awe time and time again. The second act is a collection of moments, a few cool ideas here and there strung together by slapstick and reference.

It seems weird to throw that at a children’s film, after all you gotta keep the kids entertained. But not only has Disney/Pixar animation proven consistently better than that, we should as a whole be asking for better from children’s filmmaking. Hell, Moana itself shows the better that can be asked for.

Artists like writer Taika Waititi (along with Musker/Clements, the directorial team, and John Bush),  Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i give this a remarkable sense of specificity and detail. This feels like a film immersed in culture, immersed in an understanding of who and what the place and the people they’re showing us are. It feels like an actual piece of Polynesian culture guided onto American screens. That specificity alone makes it more interesting.

It’s also that specificity that guides the remarkable visual acuity of the film. Moana is breathtaking animation, using the water and the weather of the area to produce a series of shimmering picturesque images with lush and bright colors. Plus a few bits of remarkable motion with Moana’s control of the ocean and the Fury Road-tribute sequence.

Seriously, there’s a tribute sequence to Mad Max: Fury Road and it is dope as hell.

That specificity also guides the music. While there’s no blockbuster standout (For better or worse, Moana does not have a “Let It Go”), this is probably one of Disney’s strongest batches of songs since the First Disney Renaissance. Perhaps my own bias shows through, but you can particularly hear Miranda’s guiding hand here. His brand of vocal melody shows through all over (not just because he sings track “We Know The Way” and longtime collaborator Christopher Jackson sings on “Where You Are.”) and it has his same tight and well-controlled songwritings. Between Miranda’s work and the brief joyful lapse into Britpop/Flight of the Conchords territory with “Shiny” (sung by Jemaine Clement), this was basically made for me. Kids probably won’t ask to have any of these on loop, but everyone will enjoy them in the movie and you may actually not mind having the CD play in the car a few times.

Really, I like so much of this film. I haven’t even gotten into Moana herself, played by the surprising newcomer Auli’i Cravallo. Cravallo gives the character a lot of strength and self-assurance, she’s written with complexity and not a love interest in sight, which is rare enough even outside of the “Princess” genre.

It’s just a shame this film has a big Maui-shaped hole in its center. Look, I like Dwayne Johnson a lot, he’s one of our few great action-comedy guys who can play both sides convincingly. And he does great work here. Maui is just emblematic of the problems in the middle of this film. A few good moments don’t make up for a lot of wheel-spinning and lot of far less specific material that Maui largely embodies. He’s a bit of a stock character who exists mostly as a plot vehicle for a few too many awkward references. It feels like they tried to figure something out for Johnson and just really couldn’t ultimately find anything but his standard character.

When it’s focused on him, Moana is every other story. When it’s on Moana and her people, it’s something unique. It’s a shame there is so much of him holding back what could have been a truly phenomenal movie.

Grade: B+

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