When I started the blog I said I would avoid reviewing new movies, but since I do still see them, I might as well review them anyway, even though these reviews will just get lost in the clutter of everyone else’s 2c, and you can be sure everyone WILL throw in their 2c, and when they do, odds are they’ll draw the same sort of parallels I do, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.
Everyone by now should be familiar with the name Joseph Campbell. It’s become equivalent to saying “hero’s journey”. Joseph Campbell was famous for publishing the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other similar works that attempted to show that humanity shared many common myths that seem to tap into the core of human nature. I first became exposed to Joseph Campbell via the Bill Moyers special Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, which was single-handedly responsible for elevating the original Star Wars trilogy (and George Lucas’ reputation) out of the realm of kiddie fare and into the pantheon of “great works” only to see the whole thing come crashing down again with Greedo-Shot-First and the prequels.
As any good reader of TV Tropes knows, there’s nothing truly original under the sun. It’s more about the execution and the way one can blend things together rather than serving up something straight and undiluted.
It’s the blending that has been most responsible for keeping things fresh with an audience that is increasingly saturated with entertainment and is therefore too aware of tropes. At the same time, the budding audiences overseas has pressured Hollywood to stick to universal themes that cross national boundaries, driving things back into primal hero’s journey territory, whether it be Moana or various superhero moves (Doctor Strange being the most recent example I took in).
When Hollywood decides to serve up something all too familiar, then, it sometimes leans on the superficial. This has mostly taken the form of shifting protagonists to females like we’ve seen in Star Wars with Rey (and the lead in Rogue One). With Disney it’s not so progressive because they have had a long lucrative run with their Princess brand, and how better to bloat the coffers than to introduce a new Disney princess?
It was really Zootopia that had a more overtly political/ideological point to make, one which seems especially potent in the era of Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter.
As such, Moana feels like the sort of film spawned in a committee, trying too hard to simply tick PC boxes and not trying hard enough to really say anything new or compelling. I am concerned that with this film Disney may be entering the same sort of doldrums it did back in the 90s when it floundered with “so-so” fare like Hunchback, Hercules, and Emperor’s New Groove. You can begin to see the effect of a shift from stories that seemed to need to be told to pumping out product like a sausage-factory.
The fact remains that there is a strong contingent of audience that will crow about this film simply on the basis of its multi-culturalism. I’ve got nothing at all against such a thing, but that in and of itself does not a good movie make in my book.
I am not very familiar with polynesian myths, so I can imagine that the basic storyline here follows those traditional myths, just with the insertion of your usual Disney “humor-mode” comic-relief. However, oftentimes a better way to handle fairy-tale or mythic material is to find a new more contemporary slant. The reason Frozen was successful, for instance, is that it performed a bait-and-switch where you were expecting a romantic resolution and the film was really about sisterly love. Whether or not that was the point of the original fairy-tale, how it was presented felt fresh, not to mention it showcasing a breakout song that took a life of its own.
Moana really doesn’t have anything really new to say nor do the songs stand out other than a Tim Curry style glam-rock number performed by a crab. Even that song seems to kind of just cruise in slow-gear and it is interrupted in the middle with spoken-word.
There’s nothing particularly bad about Moana, but there’s just nothing really that outstanding about it either. A good example of this is The Rock’s performance as Maui. The Rock is best known as a live-action actor and he has a very expressive face, most notably his eyebrows. It’s amazing to contemplate, but The Rock is currently the highest-paid actor on the planet. He’s not an unlikeable guy, but his range is pretty much nonexistent. All he can really play is some variation of himself, which is a muscle-bound goofball who is sometimes self-affacing and sometimes lovably arrogant, but always with a heart of gold.
For this particular role, The Rock had to display his comedic chops, but the fact is that his vocal delivery alone really isn’t that funny. Maybe if he were doing this live-action it would help complete the picture, but not just with just the voiceover. There’s just something about the Maui character that screams “Jack Black” to me and not The Rock. Obviously Jack Black doesn’t have a Maui physique, but he has the personality to play someone who thinks he’s far more competent than he is. But of course, we know that character well, don’t we?
The Maui character is actually quite a bit like Po in Kung Fu Panda because both of them are orphans. In Maui’s case he was rejected by his parents whereas Po was separated by strife. But beyond that the two are similar in a lot of ways, even though Maui is more of a supporting character than a lead. He’s more of a co-lead, actually, even though he shows up late in the picture.
It’s also worth comparing this film to Zootopia in the sense that both films feature two characters who are forced by circumstance to work together. It’s the buddy-cop formula even though it’s not a police procedural.
Unlike Zootopia, however, the film has very little interaction between the leads and other interesting characters. A fight with a bunch of coconut pirates feels tacked on in order to create some sort of action in what is, for the most part, nothing but a lot of bickering.
I felt a similar boredom with Pixar’s Brave, which seemed to spend most of its running time playing slapstick with a human transformed into a bear.
The film was in dire need of something extra. I can’t tell you what it would be, other than that it was crying out for something.
Without it, it’s a very pretty “meh” experience, even in 3D.