Moana (2016)

It opens with the familiar Disney castle logo, accompanied not by the orchestral fanfare we’ve grown accustomed to, but a solo female singing in Tokelauan (a Polynesian language), joined by a fuller choir, then the pounding of drums layering on deeper impact. Before the action even begins, we are immediately cued that this is a very different kind of Disney movie.

Moana, the latest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios, is nothing short of a masterpiece. If Zootopia is (and it is) a gift to the mind through snappy dialogue and complex social undertones, Moana is a gift to the heart, operating on more of an emotional plane than an intellectual one.

There are moments of almost-overwhelming beauty, such as the toddler Moana meeting the living, personified water. In a completely wordless scene, the waves reveal a shell in the shallow end of a beach. Moana happily trots toward it, and the ocean gradually retreats further and further back, welcoming her to come closer. It’s a spectacular moment of youth, discovery, and destiny – like something out of a Terrence Malick film, not a mainstream animation studio.

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This scene, and many others, are heightened by spectacular music. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who brought us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, to name a few) are no strangers to crafting the animated musical, and Moana delivers moments as good as anything they’ve done. The songs are staged in very imaginative, artistic ways: “How Far I’ll Go (Reprise)” as a montage of Moana choosing to leave her home behind, “You’re Welcome” as a colorful mixed-media frenzy. The easy choice would have been to stage these numbers literally, and these veteran directors still have plenty of tricks up their sleeve.

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What’s also notable about Moana, and possibly its strongest trait, is how it reshapes what a Disney Princess is. Early on in the film, her father trains her how to be Chief of the Motunui and she goes through the motions of being a functional leader. She advises her people on where to plant crops after the harvest fails. She assists in building projects. She even butts heads with her father on where the fishermen should sail. This is truly the first time we’ve seen a Disney heroine functioning as a ruler – not in passing broad strokes, but actually taking on the responsibility of a leader.

Moana is another great entry in the immensely strong contemporary Disney canon. Its innovative storytelling, rich music, and terrific heroine will cement it as a story to entertain families for generations to come.

Life is the Bubbles

Nobody loved The Little Mermaid as much as I did. The music, the adventure, the characters, and the high-stakes drama – it was all two-year-old me could ask for in a movie. He could watch it every day, so he did. As soon as his big sisters were off to school, the daily Little Mermaid ritual began: climbing into his VHS cabinet, shimmying out the bulky white plastic case between Lady and the Tramp and Mary Poppins, jamming the tape into the VCR, and immersing himself into the story of Ariel.

The Little Mermaid was such an important part of his everyday routine. Nobody could love it as much as he did.

Except the thousands of fans who also attended a screening of the film at the Hollywood Bowl. Followers of Ariel of all shapes and sizes, from little princesses to full-grown adults cosplaying as Scuttle, the real show on display was the breadth and diversity of all the people this movie touched.

In the era of Netflix, it’s so easy to enjoy entertainment wherever and whenever we please – often from the comfort of home. But it’s another experience entirely to go out, get dressed up, buy an expensive ticket for a movie you’ve already seen, and take part in a collective, collaborative entertainment event. The film screening was enhanced by the presence and enthusiasm of a motley crew, cheering as Ursula gets defeated, stifling tears as King Triton destroys Ariel’s grotto, and whistling when Eric finally “kisses the girl.”

His childhood routine, of watching and re-watching The Little Mermaid, was a mostly solitairy one – with Mom stepping in every 80 minutes or so to rewind the tape. It was something else to experience this film with a crowd of thousands, authentic kids and kids at heart, who also watched it every day growing up, now no longer alone.

Weekly Round-Up: June 05-11, 2016

This week had a few jumbled viewings, as I fell asleep and had to resume no fewer than three films. I watched:

  • Tangerine (2015) – Outrageous, hysterical, and ultimately moving story of friendship between two prostitutes in a sun-bleached vision of Hollywood. Fully fleshed out characters and strong performances anchor what would otherwise be a camp-fest, into a well-grounded window into another world. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • The Little Mermaid (1989) – Special screening at the Hollywood Bowl, with the music performed live by an orchestra with singing by Jodi Benson (the real Ariel), Rebel Wilson (as Ursula), and Darren Criss (Prince Eric), among others. Another highlight was the opening acts, of Brad Kane (the real Aladdin) and Susan Egan (the real Megara). Here’s a post reflecting on my experience. REQUIRED.
  • Zootopia (2016) – I’ve seen this four times now, and each time I uncover something new in this wonderfully rich film. It’s a heavy one thematically, touching on racism, sexism, discrimination, politics – but it balances them all beautifully in a labyrinthine mystery. REQUIRED.
  • McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – Had a hard time getting through this one. A male outsider comes to a northwest mining town, followed by professional Madame, and they pair up to start a high-class whorehouse. I went into it with enthusiastically (I enjoy the other Altman films I’ve seen), but I cared little-to-nothing about these characters or their slow-moving plotlines. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Conjuring 2 (2016) – Spooky paranormal thriller combines standard “jump” moments with some creative scares, all enriched by a quality story and stylized visuals. The Warrens are back and taking ghost-hunting to an international level, traveling to London to help a desperate family rid their house of spirits. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Player (1992) – I’m still brewing about this one. I loved the first half of the film: a studio executive being pursued by a frustrated writer, all while balancing his paranoia with the chaos and cynicism of show business. I fell off during the second half, where it gets into an unnecessary love story, but it all circles around to a twisty ending I appreciated. So, opinion is still TBD…

What did you see last week? Am I wrong about McCabe & Mrs. Miller?

Weekly Round-Up: February 21-27, 2016

It’s almost time!

I didn’t see all the movies I wanted to see by Oscar night (tonight!) but I did a pretty decent job, rounding out the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nominees this week.

I saw:

  • V/H/S/2 (2012) – I don’t know why I’m under the spell of these stupid movies. They’re pretty easy to watch, but this one is even worse than the first one. V/H/S/2 is more supernatural-focused, with ghosts and zombies and aliens rather than the human-based evil of the first one. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Bridge of Spies (2015) – For a movie about international intrigue and the exchange of Cold War spies, holy cow was this boring. The ultimate game of cinematic softball, as not once did this film have any sense of danger or uncertainty. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Martian (2015) – My last of this year’s Best Picture nominees. I didn’t like the book, and unfortunately the film adaptation kept the same douchey sense of humor and frustrating, disconnected storytelling. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Princess and the Frog (2009) – Magical hand-drawn animated musical about a young woman determined to fight for her dreams. This Disney film is strengthened by its solid soundtrack by Randy Newman and its memorable cast of characters. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Witch (2016) – Genuinely spooky tale of a New England family isolated from society and forced to defend themselves against nature, the elements, and ultimately each other. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Straight Outta Compton (2015) – Strong historical drama about the rise of west coast hip-hop, strengthened by electrifying musical performances. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?