Sunday, November 27, 2016

You can't expect a demigod to beat a decapod


MOANA

For the first time in a long time, a movie lives up totally to my highest expectations.  Welcome back, Walt Disney.

2016
Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall, and Chris Williams
Written by Jared Bush, Pamela Ribon, Jordan Kandell, Aaron Kandell, Don Hall, Chris Williams, Ron Clements, and John Musker
With Auli'i Cravalho (Moana Waialiki), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Rachel House (Tala), Temeura Morrison (Chief Tui Waialiki), Nicole Scherzinger (Sina Waialiki), Alan Tudyk (Hei Hei the Chicken), and Jermaine Clement (Tamatoa)

Spoiler alert: mild


Moana, Disney's 56th animated feature film, tells a story as old as time—or at least as old as 1989.  It concerns the yearning of one Moana, the daughter and heir of a Polynesian chief, who, in fact, wants nothing more than to become an explorer upon the Pacific blue.  Naturally, she chafes against her father's irrational policy of isolationism; and it seems that only her grandmother, Tala, really understands her.

But then, Tala is the only one who knows the secrets of the world.  Above all, she alone knows that the horrifying bedtime story she tells the isle's children is neither fable nor fantasy, but the real, apocalyptic deal: eons ago, after the goddess Te Fiti created the islands and the people upon them, she was attacked by the people's self-declared champion, a tricksy, shapeshifting demigod named Maui.  Daring to tear the goddess' mystical gem-like heart from her living chest, what he didn't count on was that other beings would desire her awesome power, too.  And that is how the colossal magma monster Te Ka came to ambush Maui on his return voyage.  In the resulting battle, Maui lost his magical fishhook, his mighty powers, and his prize.  To make matters worse for everyone, when the goddess' power to create life was stolen, so was her power to maintain it.  Ever since, we've been living upon borrowed time.  Now, as Moana's island begins to wither and die, it seems our time is up.

Tala's other well-kept secrets, however, remain sufficient to give humanity one last chance.  For she knows of the great oceangoing ships that brought Moana's people to their island; she knows, also, where the dead chiefs hid them.  And, finally, she knows one more thing—that when Moana was young, frolicking upon the shore, the living ocean selected her as its champion, delivering the toddler the heart, so that she could return it.  To Moana's surprise, this was no infant dream—she is, literally, the Chosen One—and her grandmother has kept the heart safe all these years.  Moana's desire to be free upon the waves naturally takes on a terrible new urgency now, and it is up to her to voyage across the waters, and enlist Maui's reluctant aid.  Thus the quest is laid before this mismatched pair: to fight their way through an impressive gauntlet of gods, monsters, and mutual animosities, and if they survive, they can save the world.

Hey, let's just count ourselves lucky this one doesn't turn out to be another damn Infinity Stone.

So: the superlatives are bound to pile up with Moana.  I'll try to get them out with something like a semblance of order.  But I can make no promises, because while it is not totally perfect, it really is that good.

For starters (and it warms the hell out of my own stony heart to say it) it is by far the best thing that its pair of fully-credited directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, have done in years.  Of course, it's the only thing they've done in years.  The last movie the duo actually made was The Princess and the Frog, and you probably remember it, vaguely, as Disney's well-intentioned effort to reclaim the cartoon marketplace in the name of cel animation.  Clearly, the statement, "Moana is better than The Princess and the Frog," would hardly be anybody's idea of unqualified praise.  But my next assertion surely is: Moana is the best movie to bear the Clements and Musker brand since they directed Aladdin—two whole decades ago.  And it may be even better than that.

Not coincidentally at all, it's the best movie to bear the Disney brand since then, too.  It is, in a word, a masterpiece.  Only Disney's second of the 21st century, after Tangled; only their fifth, by my count, in their seventy-nine year history.  Now, there are certainly other criteria to call a Disney film a "masterpiece" than the ones I typically use.  Personally, I tend to care not just whether its form is flawless—that almost goes without saying these days.  I ask whether form matches function flawlessly, too.  And when it comes to Disney, "function" is almost entirely synonymous with story, with character, with feeling.

Moana succeeds on all three counts: there is nothing not to love about its epic pretensions, about its naked emotionality, or about its bigger-than-life characters—from the basics of their personalities right down to the smallest details of their design.  This is especially the case with shapeshifting Maui, whose giant frame is exaggerated in all the right ways to define this scummy antihero before he even says a word.  He is beady eyes, a self-regarding grin, and the inability to make even the slightest physical or verbal gesture without sweeping grandiosity.  (But I have not even mentioned the most salient quality of his design; more on that later.)

To match the look, you have the cast.  Auli'i Cravalho, a woman unknown to me along with everyone else, is surely excellent in what amounts to a role that calls for nothing too terrifically special besides a strong set of pipes; Moana, once she leaves her island, is essentially the concept of determination made manifest.  Yet in Cravalho's performance, "determination" is surely better than just "good enough."  (Indeed, her inevitable moment of doubt is all the more heartbreaking because she seems so unflappable right up until that moment.)  And so Moana effortlessly earns a place in the next-to-top tier of Disney's heroines, after all.  The top-top tier is a tier of just one, anyway—Ariel.  In the meantime, at least Moana's demidivine sidekick can be said to have a real and complete character transformation to call his own—from incorrigible, attention-seeking rogue to something far nobler than he ever could've conceived of before.

Derivative?  Extremely.  Effective?  Yes!

Which brings us directly to Dwayne Johnson, who'd probably be Moana's standout performer if the directors had let him.  If he often steals the lion's share of the limelight regardless, it's completely in service of his character, and hence in service of his co-lead's character, too.  He's always had charisma to spare, but this is the first time I've ever witnessed him deploy it for a character like this one: a total asshole.  In the flesh, it would be hard to imagine Johnson's performance as anything but unpleasant, if not outright threatening.  But hidden behind this cartoon facade?  It is brilliant assholery.

Observe: for a solid half-dozen minutes after meeting Moana, Maui's actions largely revolve around a number of casual attempts to murder her.  (He fails at this task mainly because the ocean simply won't let her drown.)  When Maui finally comes around, and becomes marginally helpful, it is mostly for the sheer vainglory of his rematch with Te Ka.  I suppose it shouldn't surprise anyone that the promethean figure who attacked his Creator turns out to be an enormous dick.  Yet this turn is nonetheless perhaps mildly ironic, anyway—inasmuch as Maui's lost fishhook is such a blatant metaphor for Maui's masculine potency that even its target audience of small children probably won't miss the fact that The Rock is really talking about his johnson.

But it's also 100% clear that the man knows exactly what he's doing in every line, especially the ones involving his fishhook.  (And yet he plays those for actual, Freudian pathos, helping make Moana's honest-to-God mythicism work so much better than you could ever rightly expect in a film by the directors of Hercules.)  Either way, Johnson leavens Maui's recalcitrant awfulness with a kind of "hey, man, she was harshing my calm" justification, so that even a dozen active attempts on the life of our equally-likeable heroine register as funny antagonism rather than genuinely villainous behavior.  And it surely helps that, as a magical being, Maui can get away with acts of cruel indifference that a mere human would have a hard time walking himelf back from; after all, what could be more correct for a demigod than an unstressed disregard for human life?  Indeed, it's precisely this demigod's slow-to-erode self-absorbtion, matched only by Moana's refusal to let his dismissive attitude get in her way, that makes their interplay so wonderful.

Meanwhile, the high adventure gives the pair a surfeit of opportunities to prove their worth to one another, and Moana has action sequences absolutely worthy of any of Clements and Musker's past triumphs.  (Truly, for a pair of kid's movies, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin are much scarier affairs than you'd expect, and Moana hits some of those exact same buttons.)  So: from a band of evil coconut pirates, to a hoarding crab god named Tamatoa, who comes off as an all-singing, all-dancing version of Ebirah, the Sea Monster, down to the black-and-red abomination of Te Ka itself, Polynesia appears to have been one awfully dangerous place.

All the better for us!

Of course, when it comes to the Disney canon, it certainly doesn't hurt a film's chances of being a masterpiece if there's also a whole lot of singing.  (Whereas singing crabs, specifically, simply turn out to be the mark of some of Disney's finest cartoons.)  Guess what?  Moana is Disney's best musical since Aladdin, too.

Moana has the dubious benefit of leading with its least-good song, I suppose, an expository number called "Where You Are" that explains life in its idyllic Polynesian setting (and thus provides a fairly solid rationale for Moana's father's attempt to hammer her into the shape of a stifled confirmist).  It doesn't fill you with a ton of optimism, but it's still hellaciously enjoyable ("Consider the coconut!"), and it also leaves the soundtrack with a soaring curve of quality that only plateaus with what must be weirdest centerpiece song in Disney history.

That is "Shiny," Tamatoa's song.  It is delirious camp—and completely addictive.  (I've listened to it thirty times, at least.  I've seen folks describe it as Jermaine Clement channeling David Bowie, and I think there's plenty of merit to that; but, for my money, his baritone affectation is a dead ringer for Tim Curry.  It's probably no accident, then, that Tamatoa is as intimately concerned with Maui's fishhook as Maui is.  But the real brilliance of the song, outside its earworm qualities, is how clearly the antihero mirrors his arthropod nemesis, seeking shimmer over substance.  And given the exquisite animation tricks Clements and Musker pull on the screen during this number, it's also rather amusing that Moana's most formally interesting animation also arrives simultaneously with a song about how empty formalism is grotesque.)

The other songs are not quite operating on that same plane, but they're still ridiculously excellent, every last one of them.  "How Far I'll Go" is every octave the high-flying "I Want" song you could hope for; "We Know the Way," dramatizing Moana's vision of her people's glorious past as voyagers, is surely stirring; and, last but not least (I'd call it the film's second-catchiest number), "You're Welcome" tells you everything you need to know about Maui, while still leaving you wanting more.  The only serious problem with any of the songs, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina—outside of the fact that Johnson is only a decent singer, and he really cannot rap—is that they range the gamut of lyrical quality, from the most excellently-strange turns of phrase, to attempts at excellently-strange turns of phrase that wind up lame and goofy.  To wit, there's just no good excuse for any song to ever have the word "hiney" in it, whether it rhymes or not.

Especially not when it issues from the mouth of a titanic crab.

To be sure: Moana does not feature any single song as magnificently overwrought as Frozen's "Let It Go," the tune that made Disney a billion dollars—but, in fairness, you could count the number of Disney songs that are that good on one hand.  Remarkably, however, Moana is also one of the few Disney musicals that doesn't stop being a musical somewhere around the hour mark.  When I call it "the best" Disney musical in twenty-four years, I mean that as something of an objective truth.  It may the "the best" ever, in terms of how completely the musical format gives structure to the plot, and vice-versa.

As silly and downright frivolous as they can get individually, Moana's soundtrack adds up to one shockingly disciplined package.  Each song doesn't just have a plot function, but a necessary plot function, along with each one's unusually strong character function—and this is on top of each one being at least good, too, something no Disney musical has achieved since, well, Aladdin once again.  To compare like with like, let's take Aladdin's own "Friend Like Me," which is great and all—and does nothing except introduce the Genie.  Fair enough: the Genie was an extraordinarily weird character who desperately needed introduction.  Moana's answer to "Friend Like Me,"  "You're Welcome," performs the exact same task—introducing a bizarre magical being.  But it also manages to include an important plot point, and that plot point even serves as another, more concrete character point for the shifty deity—namely, stealing the heroine's boat and leaving her marooned on an island, presumably to die.

Seriously, I like Moana a lot.

The upshot is that every time this film breaks out into song, it only ever pushes the action further forward, adding a much-needed sense of momentum that turns a script (that, as a fantasy actioner, is inevitably a little modular) into something that feels vastly more lean and efficient than it honestly is.  In the end, Moana even delivers its very climax in a song—something that I don't believe has happened before in any Disney musical until the moment that Clements and Musker realized, no doubt slapping themselves on their respective foreheads, how obviously good this idea was.

(And while we're already on the subject of that ending, it is the cleverest and the kindest thing—gentle in the way that Disney movies never are.  Suffice it to say that, on top of working completely as itself, Moana's ending also reveals it to be one of the finest ecological fables of our age, yet one so subtle and allegorical you really might not notice that an "ecological fable" is exactly what it's been this whole time.  Remember Maui's metaphorical fishhook?  While the demigod is busy talking about his junk, the object most closely associated with Moana herself, besides the heart of Te Fiti and her boat, is the most vibrantly pink conch shell you'll ever see.  It's striking as hell that a movie as resolutely, defiantly sexless as this one is decides to throw down with sexual imagery this blatant, yet apparently to no great purpose.  For no love story is Moana whatsoever—making it comparatively unique within its particular niche—whereas its bona fides as a commercially-friendly feminist fable are so straightforward it doesn't need any metaphors.  But once you remember that, at bottom, Moana is a symbol-driven environmental discourse instead—and one directed by hippies with a deeply-gendered notion of humanity's relationship with the natural world, at that—well, that's when those aggressive metaphors suddenly lock completely into place.)

So, if it is a story told with as keen attention to its visuals as its dialogue and music, then what must we make of Moana as a work of animation?  It is naturally superb.  Perhaps a little counterintuitively, given how well-woven they are into the story, those musical numbers give the directors license to go completely nuts with the possibilities of their medium.  Until Moana, I wasn't sure I could totally back up my strongly-held conviction that Clements and Musker were Disney's greatest stylists—but I'm a lot more sure now.  Moana relies heavily on one of their favorite things, which is the clash of textures and styles—think Aladdin and its hyperreal CG-animated Cave of Wonders, Hercules and its gospel-inflected, expository interstitials, not to mention its vision of Olympus, and its own CG monsters, or Princess and the Frog with its art deco-inspired number, "Almost There."

Now, with an all-CG picture, they have managed to stage some ecstatically bold clashes; and it turns out that applying flat animation to CG has rather less potential to be unacceptably ugly than the other way around.  It's at its most obvious during the showstoppers—"Shiny" ultimately devolves into a psychedelic, horror-inflected blacklight poster, of all things; "You're Welcome" strikes out into territories heretofore explored only by the most eye-searing 80s music videos—but, actually, it's visible nearly every moment that Maui's onscreen.  The shapeshifter's protean ink and the two-dimensional canvas of his skin tells the tale of all his great deeds with animated braggadocio; but it is also the home of "Little Maui," his tiny but ever-present conscience, whom only he can hear, and who constantly berates him with great intensity.  (Incidentally, "Little Maui" joins Hei Hei, Moana's deeply idiotic pet chicken, along with the sentient ocean who chose her, as the three most singularly effective examples of comic relief in the whole Disney canon not named "Genie," "Abu," or "Carpet"—and, yes, I refer to Aladdin once again.)  Yet gonzo aestheticism is only one mode that Moana operates in: the rest of it is simply gorgeous in the normal way, saturated with lush-as-fuck greens and blues, composed with a deep classicism, and told with supreme clarity and precision.  So we must take it altogether; and altogether, it is a sublime achievement of the animators' art, from its first frame to its last.

I said it was no coincidence that Moana stands with Disney's masterpieces, and it's true.  After all, at some point, it simply has to stop being an accident of industrial production that so many of Disney's very best movies all happen to have issued from the directorial efforts of the same two men.  For me, that point was reached when I realized they were responsible for a straight-up majority of them.  There is almost no real place in an analysis of Disney films for auteurism, and perhaps there's even less room than usual when it comes to this Disney film in particular—when you include "co-directors" Don Hall and Chris Williams, the thing was actually overseen by no fewer than four credited human beings, whereas it was written by a veritable Goddamned army—but Clements and Musker sure as hell make it hard to view their corporate product through any other conceivable lens.  Even their worst film, Treasure Planet, is pretty unmistakably "theirs," although you'd expect it to be, given their baffling, decades-long passion to see the stupid thing realized.

Well, just like Treasure Planet (yet unlike everything else in their filmography), Moana too actually began inside Clements and Musker's skulls.  Sometime after Frog met its lukewarm reception, the pair decided that if they couldn't beat 'em, they'd join 'em, and they finally took on the task of grappling with full CGI.  And what the duo had in mind was what they'd always been best at: a time-lost seriocomic fantasy, set against a lovingly-mangled mythological backdrop.  I guess that really cuts to the heart of it.  In a hard-to-explain but very important way, whatever distinction you can make between "fairy tales" and "myths" is, also, the distinction between Clements and Musker and their colleagues.  That's how even something as anachronistic and (frankly) kind-of-dumb as their Hercules nevertheless engages with the legitimately epic at least as often as it smashes itself against the rocks of Clements and Musker's other great love—that is, painfully-contemporary reference jokes.

So let's get one last thing out of the way:  usually, whenever Moana gets remotely close to this kind of obnoxious meta-referentiality it's actually kind of cute, fitting the definition of "homage" more than "gag."  (Owing visual debts to Raiders, Fury Road, Cast Away, The Abyss, and Waterworld, I'm sure that's not even the exhaustive list.)  But let's admit that "usually" isn't "always"; because when Moana crosses the line, it can be extremely terrible—Maui's godawful Twitter reference is almost certainly the single worst joke of 2016, and possibly the whole 2010s.  But such desolate moments are so few and far between that it almost feels like a line that they meant to scrub out of the screenplay during one of Moana's thousand and one rewrites—only, somehow, they still missed it.  Of course, it remains very true that Moana would have done well to abandon that brief tete-a-tete between its heroine and Maui about whether the daughter of a chief qualifies as a "princess."

Frankly, the lady protests too much.  It's hard to think of anyone better to have sent back to Disney's princess mines than these two, after all.  Was it not Clements and Musker who more-or-less willed that whole subgenre into life back in 1989?  Today, The Little Mermaid, Disney's 28th animated feature, neatly bisects the Disney Canon.  For right now, each end of Disney's contemporary era finds itself commemorated with a milestone of monumental proportions—and both of them, it turns out, were laid down by that era's two greatest creators of all.

Score:  10/10

9 comments:

  1. Whoa, nelly! I definitely didn't like Moana as much as you did, but I think statistically, that's pretty likely. I always admire your conviction to the idea that even movies with typical genre tropes can be masterpieces. A lot of people tend to disagree and they would be wrong.

    I just wasn't bowled over by Moana, though I liked it quite a bit and am probably going to go see it again soon. But you're right, that "Twitter" line might be the worst thing ever written.

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  2. Also, two questions: What five movies do you consider Disney's masterpieces? And what did you think of the short before Moana?

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    1. 5)Fantasia
      4)Tangled
      3)Moana
      2)Aladdin
      1)The Little Mermaid

      If it weren't cheating, I'd say five and a half: the Sleepy Hollow chapter of Disney's inconsistent 1949 package film, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is pretty much perfect; the problem is you have to brave the frenetic pseudo-entertainment of the Wind and the Willows chapter before you actually get to it.

      And (6) is Hercules, so, yeah--big pattern there.

      "Inner Workings" was basically okay. I knew I forgot something (by which I mean, this review was insufferably long already). I thought its conceit of self-aware internal organs was reasonably charming, sort of a gross, physical version of Inside Out. On the other hand, it was almost hilariously disconnected from the modern world, insofar as it appears to have been written in the 1960s, when the prospect of "growing old and dying and having a fulltime office job the entire time" was something for the heart to express horror at.

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    2. I read "Inner Workings" as being primarily targeted to a Japanese audience, for whom the prospect of "lifetime employment" is shrinking but still viable--and still the source of a great many physical and psychological ills. That, and the obvious (to me, since I've lived there) setting of Waikiki, which may be Japan's favorite vacation playground, made me think that although American audiences can certainly enjoy the short, they weren't its primary target.

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    3. That's really neat; I'd have never known.

      I wouldn't necessarily want to undersell the ennui of working in an office at a bullshit job. I did, for almost four years, and it sucks in many ways, which "Inner Workings" does a pretty swell job of capturing (although I'll be truthful, and say I do kind of despise its button of an ending).

      Anyway, mind you that I often wish I hadn't had to quit that bullshit office job when I moved to Pittsburgh.

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  3. Bang on! So great to read such a well-thought-out analysis of the film, Clements & Musker, and Disney animation in general. This mirrors my own feelings, but couldn't put into such definite words.

    Also, always refreshing to see someone who sees Frozen's glory as being nothing more than the success of "Let It Go", and recognition for the brilliance that was Tangled. I honestly got into an argument once with a Disney artist who claimed that Princess and the Frog was better than Tangled, simply by virtue of being cel animation. I stand by the fact that Tangled has more of Disney's history of traditional animation packed into every single frame than most of Disney's later (and last) cel efforts.

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  4. Thanks, Aaron! Glad you enjoyed it!

    Frozen really isn't an especially good movie, and rewatches haven't made it better. (I have no idea why I own it. I mean, I remember buying it, but I cannot tell you why I did.) But "Let It Go" is the best Disney song since "Part of Your World," so I can't just ignore it. Plus, it really resonates with a lot of folks.

    Still, the way Tangled gets treated as a stepping stone to "the one that made money" does make me a little bit cross, because Tangled is absolutely wonderful. And I'm pretty sure that the biggest reason that Tangled gets obscured is "Let It Go." (And I guess that's not totally unfair: when the most memorable number in Tangled is an instrumental, that's a pretty weird place for a Disney Princess Musical to be.)

    As for your Disney-employed acquaintance, the premise that 2D is (automatically) better than 3D is an idea that can only exist in a world where no major American studio actually does 2D animation anymore. And I will readily admit that's a shame--indeed, it took me a long time to get used to 3D, especially the sight of seeing fully-rendered 3D people being subjected to cartoon-style violence.

    But that said, it must take an amazingly strong bias to elevate Princess and the Frog over Tangled. I have no strong feelings against Frog, but it really is strikingly mediocre in every other respect than a pretty enjoyable central duo, and some of its animation. (In fact, a lot of its animation is pretty awkwardly composited with the CG backgrounds--which means that his treatment of it as some holy grail of cel animation purity was always objectively wrong in the first place.)

    And, I mean, you could go right out to crazytown with that level of bias, if you wanted to. Is Cool World better than Tangled, too? That movie has cel animation, too, so it must be! Right?

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  5. why did they reference you cant expect a demigod to beat a decapod? o.O

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