The tried-and-true-and-tried-again Disney formula returns for the company’s 56th animated feature, the Polynesian-set musical Moana. The brand is essentially locked into narratives of princesses going on Heroine’s Journeys of adventure and self-discovery. As one character tells the titular sixteen-year-old island girl, “If you wear a dress, and you have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
Technically, Moana (Auli’I Cravalho) is a “curly-haired non-princess,” the daughter of the chief of Motunui Island. And you’ll never guess, but she dreams of escaping, into the wild blue yonder of the Pacific Ocean (animated to be hands-on helpful or, rather, waves on). “No one goes beyond the reef!” bellows Moana’s father (Temuera Morrison), but soon she’s off on a mission to clarify cultural and personal identity. As explained by her sage Gramma (Rachel House), Moana will need the help of mischevious demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who’s covered in tattoos that magically move, to reinstall the Heart of Te Fiti. Moana comes out of the gate like gangbusters by establishing island life in Moana’s childhood, when the ocean “chooses” her.
The first song (“Where You Are”) lays out the competing (family) values of Dad and Gramma, the latter encouraging the girl to follow her destiny (expressed in the “I Want” song “How Far I’ll Go”) to be one with the ocean and save her people in spite of the risks that terrify her father. We also meet that animal sidekick (happily not anthropomorphized into a wisecracker): a cosmically dumb chicken named Hei Hei.
Unfortunately, Moana requires a seafaring narrative that dampens the fun in a saggy midsection. After the agreeably “Hakuna Matata”-ish “You’re Welcome” introduces a smugly self-satisfied Maui (“Also I harnessed the breeze/You’re welcome!/To fill your sails and shake your trees”), Moana cedes its high-spirited musical sensibility—animated in CGI that at last has evolved to wed the best of hand-drawn character sensitivity to gorgeous near-photo-real landscapes—to an action-centrism that’s the film’s weakest element.
If the tunes aren’t quite as endearingly catchy as those of the Mouse House’s late-80s, early ‘90s resurgence, they have the benefit of being trendy, especially with much-lauded Hamilton powerhouse Lin-Manuel Miranda co-writing the film’s songs (with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina). Plus, Moanacontinues the corrective girl-power direction of recent years with its bold heroine, a teen strong enough to keep a loose-cannon demigod in line.
The film’s two teams of directors (The Little Mermaid’s John Musker & Ron Clements, and co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams) deserve “A for effort” credit for pushing Disney away from both Anglo-Saxon folklore and Anglicized facial features and body types. The animation proves consistently beautiful, and the comedy sophisticated enough to grab adults while accessible enough to have kids squealing with joy at each joke. When it’s cooking, Moana prepares tender, slip-off-the-bone meat on the tried-and-true bones of the Disney formula.
Though it’s chock full of marketable, playset-ready trappings, Moana happily pursues more than one simple theme. It’s a fable of nature disturbed and restored to harmony, but also about the individual connecting to a philosophy of living and a culture that has forgotten its identity finding its way home (offering hope for our destabilized land of opportunity). Moana plainly states the film’s central metaphor, “We have to restore the Heart!”
On the heels of its classy appearance at the Oscars, Disney sends Moana home in a deluxe Blu-ray + Blu-ray 3D + DVD + Digital HD Ultimate Collector's Edition. In short, the film gets a beautiful A/V presentation that should please home theater aficionados (and Disney fans) no end. The 3D version indeed delivers extra pop in the depth department. An added sense of depth is already a highlight of hi-def Blu-ray transfers, but transfers like this one subtly deliver added definition of planes of depth. This is not a movie much designed for projectiles flying out of the screen (although when the action gets wild and woolly, there's a bit of that). What's more striking is how the 3D enhances the very nature of state-of-the-art CGI animation, a frontier that Disney noticeably pushed forward with Moana. Since the characters and settings and objects are all designed in three dimensions for CGI animation, 3D is the ideal viewing format to experience the most of the film's fully created reality. That said, the 2D presentation is plenty gorgeous as well, perhaps more so in its brilliant color (ever so slightly dimmed in the 3D version). Both transfers feature razor-sharp delineation, with pinpoint detail (the ocean waves are especially striking) and palpable textures (including lifelike hair).
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix dazzles the ears with its faithful rendering of the theatrical aural experience. The music soars, dialogue and lyrics always stays nicely prioritized, and the sound effects boast thoughtful, discrete placement within the soundfield for maximum audience immersion in the film's reality.
This special edition brims with bonus features for a deep dive into the production and some other goodies. Happily, there's an audio commentary with directors John Musker and Ron Clements talking us through how Moana came to be, including the concept, its development, the research, the process and techniques involved in writing and animating the script and songs, and casting, while pointing out a few easter eggs along the way.
The "Theatrical Short Film: 'Inner Workings'" (6:26, HD) appears on both the 3D disc (in 3D) and on the 2D disc (in 2D), both with a brief introduction (0:48, HD) by the filmmakers.
Also on hand is the new "Maui Mini-Movie: 'Gone Fishing'" (2:29, HD).
The disc's primary making-of featurette, "Voice of the Islands" (31:13, HD) does a nice job of explaining the work that went into researching and developing the project, with special emphasis on creating an accurate sense of place in depicting island life.
The brief but fun two-part "Things You Didn't Know About..." breaks down to "Ron, John, Auli'i & Dwayne" (2:02, HD) with fun facts from the film's directors and primary voice actors, and "Mark, Opetaia, & Lin-Manuel" (1:57, HD) with the composers and lyricists doing the same.
"Island Fashion" (5:13, HD) allows costume designer Neysa Bové to explain her work.
The four-part feature "The Elements Of..." comprises "Mini-Maui" (3:34, HD), "Water" (4:38, HD), "Lava" (2:56, HD), and "Hair" (3:05, HD), explaining the unique challenges of animating each "element."
The disc's second, and very welcome, making-of focuses on the creation of the film's songs and score: "They Know the Way: Making the Music of Moana" (12:37, HD).
There's a related treasure in the "Deleted Song: 'Warrior Face' with Introduction by Songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda" (3:41, HD).
In "Fishing for Easter Eggs" (2:52, HD), hosts Auli'i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson point out some nifty details in the animation.
Seven "Deleted Scenes"—"Grandmother's Warning/Legend of Maui," "Canoe Race," "Father, Daughter, Boat," "Education of Moana," "Discussing Moana's Future," "Race the Wind/Ties That Bind," and "Under the Sea"—come with optional introductions by directors John Musker and Ron Clements.
Rounding out the extras is the music video "'How Far I'll Go' Performed by Alessia Cara" (3:04, HD), along with the international mash-up "'How Far I'll Go' Around the World" (2:44, HD).
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