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.

Zootopia (Film Review)

As an Asian-American man, I am aware of prejudices and stereotypes.  On my first day of high school, a girl asked me, in all seriousness, if I was a “Jap” or a “Chink.”  She then commented on how my english was “very good.”  I responded by thanking her, as I had been practicing for 15 years.  I guess it should come as no surprise to anyone that I responded very well to Disney’s newest animated movie, Zootopia (directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore).

Zootopia is set in a world where predators and prey of all shapes and sizes live together in harmony.  Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a rabbit who dreams of becoming a police officer for the grand city of Zootopia.  She faces opposition of all kind from her peers, mainly because, well, she’s a rabbit, in a police force mainly populated by lions, rhinos and other large animals.  In an effort to earn her rightful place in the force and prove herself worthy of being on the force to her boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), Judy finds herself trying to solve a series of missing animals with a smooth-talking fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).

The movie setting is as typical disney as it can be with anthropomorphized animals, while the genre can most readily be described as a mix between buddy comedy with elements of detective neo-noir.  An odd mix to be sure but the movie never shies away from it.  In fact, the one thing I can say about this is that this movie is never subtle.  For underneath this detective fiction is a story about prejudice and stereotyping.

Judy Hopps, being a rabbit, is thought of as weak and small.  Nick Wilde, being a fox, is seen as being sly and a liar.  And this is something that the movie never talk about subtly or mention in passing.  These are things that have shaped these characters lives, and something that they live with and in certain instances, forced to confront.  Though Judy Hopps says that not all foxes are bad or are liars, she still finds herself initially suspicious of Nick, even though he had at that point in the movie not done anything wrong.  This internalized prejudice shapes her personality in a way that even she doesn’t realize.

And if hearing talk about this kind of social issue surprising to hear in a review of a Disney film, you are absolutely allowed to be.  I was absolutely surprised by how unflinching the film is when addressing these issues.  And, in my opinion, that is the correct way to address it.  Children are a lot tougher and smarter than we often give them credit for.  They do tend to understand certain things when we think they shouldn’t or can’t.  Zootopia does something that can make or break a film: talking about the issue in a way that everyone, and I mean everyone, can understand.

I feel that in the future, Zootopia will still be remembered as the animated film with animals that bravely talked about prejudice and stereotypes in a way that most other films would have been too afraid to.  They used a medium as a tool to teach kids an important lesson about it and how best to fix it.  And more importantly, it gave an Asian-American man hope in the human race in general.