Moana (Review)

Moana (Review)

Directed by Disney duo Ron Clements and Jon Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), Moana follows the titular Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe, who is chosen by the ocean itself to reunite a mystical relic with a goddess.  She sets sail in search of the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) as she hopes to save her people.

I was really excited for this movie, mainly because the Polynesian culture is a culture that is very rarely seen in films.  And the film did not disappoint. Right from the start, the film immerses you in Polynesian culture, to the point that I am still humming and listening to “We Know the Way” even days after watching it.  Though, I guess I could say that of every song in the film as each song is catchy and powerful, and the soundtrack as a whole is more focused and thematically linked than Frozen, which suffered from a soundtrack and sounded like it was written by fifteen different people.

Everything from the music to the design of the characters instantly makes the film stand out from other similarly animated films such as Frozen and Tangled.  I make those comparisons mainly because the animation style (or at least the style of the characters) reminds me a lot of them.  Though I guess it’s no surprise considering that they are all animated by the same team.  It’s by no means a problem nor is it a distraction, though I almost wish the art style was different in order to differentiate the movies from each other artistically.  I remember how Mulan was animated to almost appear like a Chinese painting and I wish Moana was more Polynesian in style as well as story.

That issue is just a minor one for me, however.  While I was watching I didn’t care about the style because I was wrapped up in the story, the characters and the music.  While the story suffers in certain places (the beginning sort of drags and meanders while a character’s return at the end feels abrupt), it is the characters that sell it.  Moana is strong-willed but also unsure of herself.  In fact, it is her internal struggle that ends up being more interesting than her external struggle and I will always love movies like that.  It gives the film it’s center, it’s heart and it’s how we latch on to a character.  I don’t care who you are, at some point in your life you struggled with the age old question of “who you are.”

This theme of identity also extends to Maui, who at first appears to a somewhat charming yet brutish and selfish warrior, changes towards the end as we explore where he came from and why he is the way it is.  His struggles never overshadows Moana’s struggles, however, and the focus always remains on Moana and her adventure.  I say ‘adventure’ and not ‘story’ because this film really is an adventure form start to finish.  The common sentiment with this film is that Moana is Disney’s first action princess and they are absolutely correct.  She knows what she needs to do and she rarely hesitates.

Moana was an absolute joy from start to finish.  It’s funny, it’s endearing and I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would.  You should absolutely watch this movie.


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Review)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Review)

I, like most of the known world, have been a fan of Harry Potter since I started reading it as a child.  My relationships with the movie adaptations, on the other hand, have more or less been hit or miss.  While I enjoy them overall, I never like how much they cut out of the books.  I understand the need to fit the film into a manageable viewing time, but I always felt that certain scenes that were cut from the book were sometimes necessary to understand not only the characters but the story overall.  I’ll never forgive the fact that they completely cut out the final conversation between Harry and Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and condensed it down to a few scant lines that barely cover anything.

Still, one can’t deny the cultural impact that Harry Potter has had on a generation and with the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was content with the journey and I moved on with my life.  I guess I moved on too well because Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was released and I still haven’t read it.  And to be honest, I wasn’t that excited to hear about five new movies.  Perhaps in my mind, Harry Potter is over and done with so it’s hard to accept anything new.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows the adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a wizard who studies and takes care of magical creatures, as he travels to New York.  When he bumps into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a down on his luck no-maj (muggle for the British), magical beasts from Newt’s briefcase are released and they, along with former Auror Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), must go through the city collecting them before the Wizarding World is exposed.

Right from the get-go, this film feels like the last four films of the Harry Potter films, due, no doubt, to David Yates’ direction.  So, right from the get-go, this film feels a lot darker than the early years of Harry Potter, which makes sense because while the film still has the magic and whimsy that befits the Wizarding World, this is still the world of adults who have to deal with adult issues.

This is the source of the problem that I feel the film has.  There are two distinct storylines that are running through the film.  One deals with Newt and Jacob’s efforts to recapture the creatures that escaped.  This is the story that is filled with wonder and joy.  The other deals with Tina and Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) attempting to find a creature that wreaking havoc through New York.  This is the story that is filled with some of the darkest material I’ve ever seen in the Harry Potter universe.

How can you reconcile a fun and upbeat story about capturing unique and fantastical creatures with a story of witch-hunts and child abuse?  Plus, this new series has to introduce a completely new side of the Wizarding World (the culture of the Wizarding World in America), so the beginning of the movie meanders around, making Newt’s storyline feel unimportant in the face of the true story, of an invisible beast of rage killing and destroying New York.  And in the middle of it all, there’s Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), an adopted son of a witch-hunter who is frequently beaten with a belt.

Speaking of which, there are several actors who simply excel as their characters.  Dan Fogler is simply delightful as Jacob, allowing us to see a no-maj viewing magic for the first time with the same love that us fans had when we first saw it.  Ezra Miller draws so much sympathy for his struggle.  Even Colin Farrell is interesting if only to see a view of magic that isn’t really expressed, the view that the law hurts more people than it helps.

Even with these wonderful characters, though, it can’t help the fact that the film just feels like events transpire only to set up events in the sequels because films today aren’t interested in being good films, they’re interested in setting up franchises.  How one character’s arc ends was extremely bold and surprised me (I always love it when films surprise me), but it also left me wondering what the point of it was?  It didn’t make sense in this film but I have the feeling that it will make sense in the next films.

Having said all of that, I want to see what happens in the next films.  Maybe it’s the magic of Harry Potter but even with all the problems I see in the film, I still want to see where this series takes me.  I probably enjoyed it much more than the original movies, which is probably because this isn’t based on a book and there was nothing cut out of it that I felt shouldn’t have been cut. In the end, it is a fun film to watch, and despite all the problems I found with it, I still enjoyed my time visiting the Wizarding World again.  And I believe this will probably be the film that makes me finally read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Trolls (Review)

Trolls (Review)

Where do I even begin with this film?

Trolls are about the Trolls, those toys that you had as kids with small bodies but long hair, who live in the forest singing, dancing, making scrapbook and generally being happy all the time.  They have a predator, a race called the Bergens, who can only be happy by eating Trolls.  When Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick), throws a loud party, it draws the town to the attention of the bergen, Chef (Christine Baranski), who kidnaps Poppy’s friends.  She forces Branch (Justin Timberlake), an unhappy and sarcastic troll, to accompany her as they go off to rescue their friends.

To say that I was confused throughout the whole movie is an understatement.  Nothing in this world makes sense.  It’s all topsy-turvy with strange animals and even stranger settings.  It almost looks like a world straight from a Dr. Seuss book.  I have to say, though, that I found myself ignoring the strangeness and just going along for the ride.  It has a charm which is probably due to their awareness that this is all crazy.  They know how insane this is, but just go with it.

While I can enjoy the movie and the music, I worry that the music will eventually become dated.  Every song seems to be a rehashed version of a Top 40 song which just makes it easier to date.  The songs are catchy though and serve a purpose of moving the emotional plot along.

The animation is interesting in its own right.  Everything about the world, from the trees to the animals, are designed to look like they’re made out of scrapbook felt and paper.  If anything, this whole thing was designed to look like it was a book made by a child (which, even the craziness of the world, it probably was).

The characters are your typical kids movie stereotypes.  Anna Kendrick is the happy go lucky one while Justin Timberlake is the sourpuss and they have to work together to do the right thing.  This whole film does have the feeling of a corporate paint by numbers movie.

Still, I found myself enjoying it, even though the movie is predictable.  The songs are catchy, the visuals are ridiculously bizarre and the characters are funny.  The best analogy I can think of is that this movie is like cotton candy: it’s sweet, fluffy and colorful with not much substance, but if you can enjoy it for what it is, then it’s a good time.

Arrival (Review)

Arrival (Review)

Twelve alien spacecrafts appear all across the world.  With no way to communicate with them, the military hires top linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to find a way to communicate with them and to discover the answer to the big question: why are they here?

Right from the beginning, you know the movie isn’t going to be about the aliens.  It’s going to be about Amy Adams’ relationship with her daughter, who died at a young age due to cancer.  This event seems to permeate throughout Adams’ world, making everything a subdued gray.  This is no doubt thanks to the awesome cinematography of Denis Villeneuve, who directs every shot with such intensity that I found myself awed by the framing of every shot.

Amy Adams subdued performance steals the show where she proves once and for all that yes, she is a better actress than Batman v. Superman made her out to be.  There’s a subtlety that runs throughout the whole movie that just makes sure that the audience is invested, even when all she’s doing is looking up at the towering ships in awe.  From frame one, we are with Adams.  Everything that happens and everything that we see only happens because Adams is there to see it.  This is truly a movie with only one point of view and that is our heroine.

A movie that springs to mind is Interstellar except it is by far not as flashy.  Not only are the stakes just as big but the emotional impact is gut wrenching.  There is a spirituality that permeates throughout the film that I can’t really go into detail about for fear of spoiling the movie.

I almost don’t want to say anything more for fear of ruining the movie for people who want to see it.  It’s one of those movies where the less you know about it the better.  What I can say is that I guarantee that we will be seeing this film at the Oscars or on people’s Top 10 lists of the year.  If you love science fiction, go see this movie.  If you love movies that stick with you well past when you’ve driven out of the parking lot, go see this movie.  For me, this was probably the most important film of the year.