**½/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B
screenplay by Jared Bush
directed by Ron Clements & John Musker (co-directed by Don Hall & Chris Williams)
by Walter Chaw Arguably, the only place it really matters in terms of the diversity tango in Disney's new animated musical Moana is in the songwriting and voice-acting, and so although there are only white people directing (four credited directors) and writing (eight credited scenarists), find Opetaia Foa'i and Lin-Manuel Miranda behind the music and Dwayne Johnson and Auli'i Cravalho behind the Pacific Islander characters. This is progress. Also progress is what seems, to this non-Polynesian, like a real effort to not appropriate a culture so much as represent its mythology, tied as it must be to a narrative about a young woman, Moana (Cravalho), a stout Disney heroine of that certain mold for whom adventure calls, declaring her independence from the patriarchy. We've seen her before, is what I'm saying, but she's neither sexualized nor given an aspirational mate/therapeutic marriage. Progress. I'll take it. There's even a moment where demigod Maui (Johnson) makes a crack about Moana being in the Disney canon. Progress? Self-awareness, at least. I'll take that, too. What's unfortunate is that for everything that's very good about the film, there's something very familiar. The argument should probably be made that familiarity is the sugar that helps the medicine of its progressive elements go down. It worked for The Force Awakens.
It seems that long ago Maui, in his unbridled hubris, stole the heart of a Goddess to barter for the adulation of humanity. He's identified as a trickster god in this mythos. In action, he most resembles the Greeks' Prometheus, even boasting during his signature song, "You're Welcome," of bringing fire to man. Like Prometheus, Maui is punished with exile. Like Prometheus again, it takes the agency of a hero to free him. That would be Moana, a chieftain's daughter slotted to be the leader of their isolated community (even her predetermined fate is one of indentured leadership) who yearns to explore what the world has to offer beyond the reef that breaks just past their shore. This leads to a frankly beautiful sequence in which Moana discovers that her people had always been voyagers before their courage flagged sometime in the near past. The song there, "We Know the Way." is as close as Disney has ever come to a genuinely foreign conceit, because, you know, "Colors of the Wind" ain't cuttin' it. The film in the Disney universe Moana most resembles is Hercules; that's praise. (I like Hercules quite a lot.) Moana's call to action is famine--which was also Oedipus's call to action, and, like Oedipus, Moana identifies the source of the pestilence, in a roundabout way, as her denial of her own identity and agency. She steals a boat in pursuit of Maui.
There's something uncomfortable, in the post-election environment, about Maui as he initially presents himself. His breed of unexamined braggadocio and megalomaniacal narcissism just doesn't go down like it used to. The film eventually allows Maui his redemption, but it takes a long time to feel better about the character--his little abuses of Moana, including the Waterworld thing of repeatedly tossing her off the catamaran, feel less harmless now. Maybe they should never have felt harmless. This is likely progress as well. What works best about Moana are its moments of cultural peculiarity. The creation myths and quests have their parallels, but the Kakamora (coconut pirates--that is, pirates who are coconuts, not pirates of coconuts) are an exceptional invention, both visually stunning and delightfully odd. Likewise a vain hermit crab voiced by Jemaine Clement that provides the piece its insouciant surreality. Best, maybe, is a resolution that doesn't depend on the slaying of the film's volcanic antagonist but rather recognition and reconciliation. Given Disney's legacy of "justified" murder and righteous, retributive slaughter, Moana's message of cultural expansion, learning personal history, and seeking to understand in lieu of endeavouring to destroy is well-taken. If, at the end, the action sequences (save the Kakamora assault) are mundane and forgettable and too much of it is only fine, Moana has going for it the momentum of a ruling culture doing its best to allow itself to be subsumed by a minority culture, even as it has miles to go before it sleeps. Originally published: November 21, 2016.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Disney's Blu-ray release of Moana should placate those frustrated by the company taking its sweet time to enter the 4K market. The film's 2.39:1, 1080p transfer is some kind of peak for animation on the format; it's breathtaking. And that's largely due to the colours--I frankly didn't know or had forgotten that my 10-year-old TV was capable of producing such vibrant blues and such a supple array of tones. Saturation is rich and intense but never harsh: the depth and complexity of the palette is as poised to impress as the vividness of it. Dynamic range, it follows, is outstanding, and the level of fine detail is a wonder to behold, with every tattoo looking convincingly subcutaneous beneath stippled flesh in close-up. In fact, the image is a veritable relief map of textures, such that the Blu-ray 3D alternative seems redundant. Compression, for what it's worth, appears flawless on mid-size displays, despite a characteristically stingy bitrate (24 Mbps). The attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track is complementarily spectacular, a dazzling reproduction of a realistic, immersive, warmly-recorded mix. Te Ka, the lava monster surrounded by groaning clouds that produce thunderclaps, may frighten the little ones at reference volume, though the LFE channel is generally reserved for percussion in the score.
The HiDef quote-unquote "bonus extras" begin with "Voice of the Islands" (31 mins.), a retrospective documentary on Moana's five-year journey to the screen. The process entailed research trips to the South Pacific, where co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements soaked in the scenery and local custom. They went into production with the request of one island elder, the late Papa Mate, ringing in their ears: "For years we've been swallowed by your culture... One time can you be swallowed by our culture?" This is a good if self-congratulatory piece about how Disney is getting more woke, to the point of hiring no white vocal talent on Moana save Alan Tudyk, who voiced the chicken. On the advice of the "Oceanic Story Trust" they put together, they even revised the screenplay so that the title character didn't destroy a coconut during a temper tantrum. (Coconuts are considered a precious commodity, their abundance notwithstanding.) Though it's probably wrong to conflate the cultural identity of all the islands that make up Polynesia, the producers were on a clock. The comparatively fluffy "Things You Didn't Know About..." (4 mins.) asks Musker/Clements, Moana actress Auli'i Cravalho, The Rock, and co-composers Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina silly questions that, especially in young Cravalho's case, prompt bemused but earnest answers. "Hamilton"-heads may perk up at hearing that "My Shot, Hamilton" took Miranda a year to write, but then they probably already knew that.
In "Island Fashion" (5 mins.), virtual-costume designer Neysa Bové (who showcases her charming artwork on her blog) talks about the challenge of creating outfits for people who existed 3000 years ago, and proudly shines a spotlight on some wardrobe details destined to be overlooked. The four-part "The Elements of..." (14 mins.) takes a similar compartmentalized approach to "Mini-Maui," "Water," "Lava," and "Hair." The big takeaway, for me, was that I've watched too many featurettes devoted to digitally simulating the elements--and hair: the software continually improves but the challenges remain the same. I did, however, appreciate the little hosannas for Disney veteran Eric Goldberg, who supervised the 2-D animation of Maui's sentient tattoo and calls it Maui's Jiminy Cricket. Moving the discussion along to music, "They Know the Way" (13 mins.) shows Miranda winning a dance contest at the Pasifika Music Festival--a good omen, considering he'd only been hired to help pen songs for Moana the day before. The most charming and user-friendly interviewee, not just here but on the entire disc, Miranda cites "When You Wish a Star" as a song so iconic you can't imagine it actually being written, and calls the inexperienced Cravalho a ringer. Foa'i is very stoic in comparison, while Mancina seems like a beach bum; Foa'i is right that whoever put the three of them together was either mad or a genius. Miranda returns, without his collaborators, to introduce "Warrior Face" (4 mins.), a deleted song recorded backstage at "Hamilton" with his co-stars from the play. Storyboards accompany the music. Lastly in this section is a Karaoke bar-ready video for "How Far I'll Go," performed not by Cravalho but by Alessia Cara, plus "How Far I'll Go Around the World" (3 mins.), a montage of the song sung in various languages (for that soupçon of globalism).
Seven more elisions come complete with thumbnail animatics and intros from Musker and Clements. The false starts of Moana's development included a lot more of her as a child, competitive canoeing between Moana and her six jettisoned older brothers, and a sailing lesson from Gramma Tala. Nothing that will be missed. Eight-eyed bat Walu the Wicked had potential, though. "Fishing for Easter Eggs" (3 mins.) finds Cravalho and the Rock spoiling the subliminal homages in Moana, the best of which, hands down, is a crate containing the dismembered parts of Olaf from Frozen. (I spotted none of these without their assistance, I confess.) Rounding out the supplements are two animated "mini-movies": the new and superfluous Moana/Maui short "Gone Fishing" (2 mins.), directed by Musker and Clements; and Leo Matsuda's Chaplinesque "Inner Workings of the Human Body" (6 mins., ***/****), a sort of grown-up Inside Out in which imagining the worst-case scenario--death--stops cubicle drone Paul from attempting anything out of the ordinary. It's a morbidly hilarious and painfully true portrait of a certain type of depressive male (guilty), but will the audience for Moana get anything out of it? Trailers for the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, Descendants 2: Elena of Avalor, and Cars 3 round out the platter. This is a combo-pack of course, featuring additional DVD and downloadable copies of the film.