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It's Fury Road All Over Again

The last time I talked about a film critics and audiences loved over but I couldn't get behind was George Miller's apocalyptic action-thriller Mad Max: Fury Road. In a nutshell, I referred to the film as one overlong, extended chase through the desert which got very repetitive, very quickly, in addition to me dubbing it as the most overrated movie of 2015. Now, in the year of our lord 2016, I must put my foot down on another movie critics are fawning over, but I couldn't fully get into: Disney's Moana.

Before, I go any further, let me state for the record my views on calling something "overrated" and what it means to me: When I call a film "overrated", I'm not saying it to stir the pot or to deliberately hold a contrarian point of view (that's Armond White's job!); I'm saying that there are aspects about it I feel other critics have glossed over which have stuck out like a blister from my perspective. When I write reviews like this, my goal is to not sound like a confrontational jerkoff who's itching for a fight, it's to explain why I feel this way about a movie, and hopefully, to have an open dialogue about it. Now that I've gotten that disclaimer out of the way, let's talk about what works about Disney's latest animated feature,

As for the course with the more recent Disney Animated fare, the design and animation of Moana is stunning. From the sweeping shots of the title character sailing beyond her island home, to the terrific dance between computer animation and hand-drawn shots sprinkled thought the movie, the mere look of the film is itself, a show-stopper, I applaud the filmmakers for making a story that highlights the rich culture of Hawaii, as well as its people and the respect it has for the traditions of its indigenous people (Editor's note: our government could learn a thing or two about respecting native culture and not spitting on it, especially today). The title character herself (voiced by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho) is a refreshing in of herself: she doesn't have the shape of her Disney Princess sorority brethren (think characters like Belle, Mulan, Cinderella, or Elsa), nor does she have a love interest. She's the daughter of a chief of their tribe and she's being groomed to take her place as leader on their island Motunui and she has a deep love of her people, as well as its traditions, save one: it is forbidden to venture outside the reef which surrounds the island. Moana feels the ocean is calling her - literally.

The legend states that reckless demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of Te Fiti, the goddess which created all life surrounding the islands of the South Pacific. As an act of vengeance, she separated the demigod from his magical fish hook, the source of his shape-shifting abilities, but lost her heart to the sea in the process. She is chosen by the ocean to force Maui to right his wrong by reuniting the emerald-shaped stone to Te Fiti, without being killed by Te Ka, the volcanic demon protecting the gateway to reuniting the goddess with her missing heart. On the surface, it sounds like a cross between a road movie & a coming-of-age tale told from the perspective of a girl becoming a young woman, and for the most part, it is that basic joining of film genres as the driving force of the movie. Cravalho's spirited, yet determined take captures the heroine of the story, her journey of her identity as a maturing woman, as well as grappling with the burden of being a leader for her people; and Johnson's arrogant and brash Maui make for a great pairing as the two characters bounce off one another: she doesn't have the patience for his braggadocios, alpha-dog bullshit, and the latter won't take orders from what he sees as a princess who's in way over her head.

Despite two fine voice acting performances, stunning animation, at times, a stirring soundtrack from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and the group Opetaia Foa'i ("We Know the Way" is the standout, as well as a shoe-in for Best Original Song come Oscar time) and the fact the picture proudly embraces its femininity, I don't believe Moana is as good as the critics claim it to be. The title character herself isn't the most interesting character in her own movie - that honor belongs to Johnson's Maui as his character arc feels more rounded and we see a change in him from where we saw in at the beginning. By contrast, the character Moana starts off as confident, can-do character, and ends there at the end of the film. Allow me to put this character in further contrast with another female lead character, Judy Hopps, from Zootopia: Like Moana, she's a confident, headstrong, 'nothing will get in my way!' lead. She's constantly dismissed by her peers for her size, her looks and for her being a rabbit, and even as she becomes the department's first rabbit officer, Hopps is still looked down by her alpha-male police chief as well as her fellow officers. It isn't until after she cracks a big case where predatory mammals become affected by a mind-altering drug where she sees that prejudice can cut both ways, that she can be just as seceptable to ignorant beliefs, just as she was because of her perception as being weak because of her species. With Moana, there's little sense of struggle during her journey - yes, she wipes out during her first attempt to sail out to sea, but those moments feel few and far between. The sea literally bails her out of jams, for crying out loud!

The music itself feels very hit-and-miss. For something stirring like "We Know the Way" or fun and catchy like "You're Welcome", the songs are just very generic and uninteresting. "Where You Are" and "How Far I'll Go" just feel like songs that were dusted off unused songs from the Disney animated musicals of the past; and the score itself, done by Mark Mancina, only highlights the feeling this isn't Disney's finest hour, music wise. (*Editor's note: this is the fist time I've come across Lin-Manuel Miranda's work, and I'm guessing on better days, we get better offerings like what he did on Hamilton). Lastly, and I don't mean this as a knock on the film itself - this year is stacked with deep animated features. Zootopia is an instant classic and the best film concerning race relations since Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing; Kubo and the Two Strings is a lovely, meditative and bittersweet Japanese story about a young boy grieving the loss of his mother and learning to carry on; Finding Dory tackles the subject of disability with grace and warmth; and Sausage Party is a side-splitting satirical take on Pixar and organized religion (complete with food fucking, I shit you not!). I feel that between those films I've seen and listed, Moana sticks to the shallows, while everyone else is hunting bigger game.

Again, I'm not trying to say it's a bad film, because as I've pointed out, it's just not the case. Nor am I saying that you shouldn't see this, because you should, especially if you want to see something that's empowering for little girls. From my perspective, it's a good animated movie. But I'm not convinced it'll be ranked alongside Frozen, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Zootopia as one of Disney's crowning achievements in the animation genre. But even on Disney's weakest days, I'd still roll with Moana than anything Illumination and Sony Pictures Animation can throw out on their collective best day.

** 1/2 stars out of ****


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