Moana

Cast: (voiced by) Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jermaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk

Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker

Writer: Jared Bush


Whenever Disney makes a fairy tale, they have a formula they like to follow. It’s one that’s been around since Snow White was first made and it’s one that they’ve consistently used because (a) it’s recognisable and (b) it works. The protagonist is usually a heroine (often a princess) who is unsure about her place in the world and is searching for something. She will have an animal sidekick who helps out along the way while providing some laughs. The adventure she embarks upon will involve music and magic and oftentimes she will find love along the way. At the end there will be an evil that must be overcome or defeated and then the characters will live happily ever after. The formula is always there, but Disney’s genius is in its ability to introduce a spin or some new elements to their stories that distract us from the formula. Moana is a good, enjoyable film with likeable characters, great music and superb animation, but it is also one of Disney’s more formulaic films.

Moana is the daughter of Chief Tua Waialiki of the Polynesian island of Motunui and is destined to become the tribe’s first female chief. As an infant she was bestowed with an ancient artefact by the ocean, a sign that she had been chosen to fulfil some great destiny. Moana thus grows up with a thirst for adventure and yearns to explore the ocean and see what is out there. Her people however believe that the island provides them with everything that they need and so they are forbidden to venture beyond the reef, even when the sudden scarcity of fish and failure of the crops threatens to famish them. Moana learns that this blight is the result of an ancient darkness released by the mythical hero Maui when he stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. It is up to her to take the heart that was given to her by the ocean and find Maui so that he might return it to where it belongs. To do this she must sail the depths the ocean, as her ancestors had long before her, and venture into the unknown.

The film, to its credit, does not exactly follow the Disney formula beat for beat. There is, for example, no love interest. Also Moana, strictly speaking, is not a princess (even though, as Maui points out, she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick). Most of the formulaic elements that are present, (the spirited heroine, the closed-minded father, the comedic sidekick, the obnoxious but loveable hero, the moment of doubt and failure that comes before the moment of triumph) the film does well. The issue is that I was thinking about this formula the entire time I was watching this film because there weren’t any substantial departures or twists to make me feel like Disney was really trying something new. Frozen did this by placing its main focus on the relationship between the two sisters. The Lion King did it by departing the familiar children’s fables and instead adapting a Shakespearian tale of madness, deceit and revenge. Moana has a new setting and some new characters, but the story is one Disney has told before. Even though I enjoyed the film a good deal, I was acutely aware that the film was going through the motions much of the time.

That said, there is a lot to enjoy. Moana, portrayed convincingly by newcomer and native Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho, is a likeable protagonist and is certainly one of Disney’s most active princesses. Dwayne Johnson brings a wealth of charisma and swagger to the role of Maui. The animation, as always, is stunning, especially at the beginning when Moana first discovers the ocean and at the end after the great evil is defeated. The music composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (whose Hamilton soundtrack has recently become an obsession of mine) is both memorable and distinctive from what Disney has done before. Much praise has been given to ‘How Far I’ll Go’, which some have predicted will become the next ‘Let It Go’, but my favourite track was ‘We Know the Way’, which plays when Moana learns about her ancestry. The story itself flows well for the most part, but there is one very strange scene involving a giant crab that kind of comes out of nowhere. I wouldn’t exactly call it a bad scene or anything; it’s just… strange.

Those who watch this film looking for a fun, exciting, amusing, pleasant Disney film that the entire family can enjoy will get exactly that. Personally though, with the standard that Disney has set in the last few years, I’d have liked to see a film that took a few more risks and held a few more surprises like Zootropolis. I think that most people who watch this film will be able to predict how exactly it will play out, but whether or not that’s a bad thing will depend on the viewer. There is little in this film that I can fault, my only real grievance is that I don’t think there was enough introduced to the story that could allow it to stand on its own amongst the other movies that Disney has produced. Still, it is to be sure a wonderfully animated, well told, characteristically Disney film that will please kids, grown-ups and die-hard Disney fans.

★★★★

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Zootropolis

Cast: (voiced by) Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrance, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira

Directors: Byron Howard, Rich Moore

Writers: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston


I think the greatest strength of Zootropolis is that it isn’t the film it initially appears to be. I walked in expecting to see a fun movie about animals sharing a city. What I got instead was an astoundingly smart and insightful film with a cultural relevance that I never expected from Disney. Zootropolis takes the idea of animals inhabiting a city further than any of us could have imagined and uses it to explore such themes as prejudice, discrimination, diversity and tolerance. Not only does this film succeed in engaging with these themes in a clever and entertaining way, it does so in a format that is targeted towards children. It takes an enormously complex issue that still provokes much debate and controversy in the world today, an issue that even adults still struggle to wrap their heads around, and manages to present it to kids in a way that is challenging but also accessible. If Zootropolis is not the best film that Disney has made in recent years, then it certainly is the most important.

The film follows Judy Hopps, a young rabbit from an idyllic town who dreams of becoming a police officer. She actively pursues her dream as an adult in spite of being told by those around her that she as a critter is too small and too weak to ever succeed in such a job. Even when she proves the naysayers wrong and earns her place at the academy, her boss Chief Bogo, a cape buffalo, refuses to provide her with any real responsibilities and instead places her on traffic duty. However, once she finds an opportunity to land a case involving a missing otter and seizes it, Bogo allows her to take the case under the condition that she agree to resign if she cannot provide any results within 48 hours. To solve this case Judy teams up with Nick Wilde, a fox and a con artist who she doesn’t trust but who has the skills and street smarts she needs to pursue this case. As they get deeper into the case however they find that it might be much bigger than they could have imagined.

This film completely deserves all of the praise it has received so far for three reasons. Firstly is because it is both funny and entertaining. Zootropolis is able to have fun with the animal city concept, leading to some great laughs. I laughed all the way through this film thanks to such jokes as the rabbit population, the elephant in the room and, best of all, the sloths. There are even some grown-up jokes and some self-referential jokes about Disney that manage to add to the humour without seeming forced. The second reason this film deserves praise is because of the animation and design. One of the best scenes in the film is when Judy moves to Zootropolis and sees the entire city for the first time. We see some of the different districts that will be explored later on such as the Polar District and the Rainforest District and even see how the city is able to accommodate for such a large number of animals of varying sizes and shapes in such places as the subway. There is a good chase scene later in the film which leads Judy to stumble into a mouse neighbourhood where she herself is a giant. The film’s very concept is one of limitless possibilities and half the fun was in watching the ways in which it was realised.

The third reason Zootropolis deserves to be lauded is because of the themes it tackles and the morals it teaches. By teaming Judy up with a predator in the form of Nick the Fox, both characters have to learn to overcome their differences and prejudices in order to work as a team. It isn’t done in a corny or half-baked way though; the film goes to great lengths to illustrate why these differences exist and just how much these characters need to overcome in order to work together. Zootropolis doesn’t try to pretend that overcoming prejudice is easy or that it is an issue that can be simply tossed aside. Judy has to work just as hard to learn how to understand and accept Nick as she does to prove herself to the police department. As well as showing children the complexities and challenges inherent in this issue it also manages to promote understanding and acceptance as being the way forward.

Zootropolis is so much more than a fun family-friendly movie about animals. It is a film about overcoming differences and altering perceptions and is a marvellous success. Although it is disparaging to think that this is a lesson that still needs to be taught in this day and age, it is also a relief to see that it can be taught to any and all audiences in such an intelligent and enjoyable way. Usually with Disney films I think it’s better to leave well enough alone, but this is actually a film that I’d like to see be given a sequel. I would absolutely love to see how much further Disney can take this concept and to see how much deeper they can explore these issues. However, if this is the only movie that Disney ever makes, then it stands as an excellent feature in its own right and is certainly a worthy addition to the line-up of movies Disney has released since their adoption of 3D animation.

★★★★★