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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The BFG

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Melissa Mathison


Roald Dahl had a singular gift for capturing children’s imaginations. In novels like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach he demonstrated an uncanny ability to see the world through the eyes of a child. While adults tend to have their feet grounded in reality, children are able to accept the impossible in stride, something that Dahl fully embraced. His stories were creative, silly and relatable and they dealt with the fantastic and the bizarre in a very matter-of-fact way. Sometimes they could be dark (I remember this one passage in The BFG that described what all the different children of the world tasted like) but the baddies always got their just deserts in the end and there was always a moral for kids to take away. There are few films that can match the childlike wonder of Dahl’s work, but E.T. is unquestionably one of them. I cannot think of a more suitable team to bring one of Dahl’s stories to life than Spielberg and Mathison.

Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) lives in a London orphanage where she often reads into the late hours of the night when everyone else is asleep. One night at the “witching hour” she spots an elderly giant lurking in the shadows outside of her window. The giant snatches her from her bed and carries her all the way to Giant Country. There the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) explains that she must remain in his home forever so that she may never reveal the existence of giants to the world. The other giants are all enormous, repulsive bullies with names like Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) who spend their nights stealing children and eating them. The BFG meanwhile spends his days capturing dreams which he then casts into children’s minds as they sleep. As Sophie becomes friends with the BFG, she determines that something needs to be done about the rest of the giants and enlists the BFG to help her.

The plot, much like in E.T., is very simple and minimal, allowing for more time to focus on the interactions between Sophie and the BFG. This movie is perfectly content with putting the story on hold so that a moment may be allowed to play out. Even when the plot does move forward in the third act with Sophie and the BFG appealing to the Queen of England, the film still finds time for an amusing scene the morning after where the disparity between the giant and the humans is played on for comic effect. The film also pauses to focus on moments of enchantment, as when the BFG takes Sophie to the pool where he collects his dreams. It is a tremendous scene that allows the viewer to get lost in the magic for a moment. Other times the film simply lets Sophie and the BFG talk to each other, allowing us to enjoy the evolution of a fascinating and unlikely friendship.

Despite the vast differences between them, Sophie and the BFG are remarkably similar in a number of crucial ways. They are both outsiders, Sophie being an orphan and the BFG being the runt of the giants. Both are childish in certain ways and adult in others, meaning they must both be responsible for each other. Sophie is mature for her age but is still helpless against the giants, therefore it is the BFG’s responsibility to protect her. The BFG however is rather scatter-brained and timid, making it Sophie’s responsibility to mother him. Barnhill makes her splendid debut as the clever and witty Sophie while Rylance is simply magical as the odd and affectionate giant. In a motion-capture performance that rivals even those of Andy Serkis, Rylance’s delivery of the BFG’s garbled lines and realisation of his peculiar movements amount to an utterly charming character. The friendship the two of them form is the heart of this movie and watching their interactions was a delight.

The BFG is a movie about dreams and stories, family and childhood, and having courage in the face of adversity. It is above all a film about friendship. It is a tale of kindness, valour and goodness winning against bullying, malice and cruelty. The movie is patient and clever enough that it doesn’t need to constantly keep the story moving forward for fear of losing the children’s attention. The magical world it depicts and the enjoyable characters it portrays are both fascinating enough to keep the viewer engaged, even in the moments where there doesn’t seem to be much happening. The film doesn’t have the emotional punch of E.T. but it has the creativity, humour and wonder. The BFG is an endearing, kind-hearted movie that I’d like to think Mr. Dahl would’ve been proud of. I think it is a worthy fulfilment of the book I enjoyed so fondly as a child and I hope it is one that will resonate with children today.

★★★★