Tuesday, November 29, 2016

MOANA: My review

This may be the only review on the entire internet that pans MOANA. Oh well. At least you know I don’t just follow the pack.

First off – the obligatory disclaimer: I love animated movies. THE INCREDIBLES was exactly that. The TOY STORY series rocked. Hey, I loved THE LITTLE MERMAID and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. And even ALADDIN (both the Disney version and the one with Mr. Magoo). THE IRON GIANT is not to be missed. And the classic old Disney features are still thrilling even though mothers in those films get killed a lot.

So I went in to MOANA wanting to love it. At worst I thought it would be FROZEN with better weather. MOANA had songs by Lin-Manual Miranda, which alone is worth the price of admission. Hawaii is a favorite location of mine. I’m going there again this week (fair warning to the papayas). And Disney animation is just dazzling.

Happy to say all of that was in the film in abundance. The songs were clever (although not remotely memorable), Hawaii was depicted as lush and tropical and without Hertz Rental Car kiosks, and the animation was painstakingly beautiful.

But the story was just a rehash of every Disney animation trope. Plucky young girl protagonist. Father who doesn’t want her to leave the island. (“Ariel, don’t go to the surface.” “Belle, don’t leave the town.” “FROZEN-girl (I forgot her name), don’t leave the town.”)

Then it’s the adventure, bringing comic animal sidekicks (who do something at the end to save the day), meeting comic cohorts (who come back to aid the heroine and save the day), action sequences, heart-tugging scenes of homesickness, a magic spell, and once it’s lifted, flowers start to bloom where ice/rock/lava used to be. Everyone works through their issues, family breaches are all mended, the town/island/ocean/country is saved.  And anytime the heroine (who always has huge sized eyes) is reluctant or scared to move on to the next story beat there’s a big power ballad that propels her to do so. It’s very formula. “Let it go” already.

The story itself was confusing. Some demigod stole a magic stone, which created a lava monster, and a thousand years later coconuts weren’t growing right on an island so the heroine has to travel across the sea, bring the demigod to some place, and then do something with the magic rock. Huh? And the demigod has to do something too, but I forget what it is.  If I had trouble, I can imagine what the eight-year-olds in the audience were thinking. Along the way there are more rules that get thrown in, and the ending makes no sense whatsoever.

And the movie feels like two hours. Back when Uncle Walt was in charge he understood that 75 minutes was max. If this group was making SNOW WHITE today I’m sure there would be 30 drawfs. I was checking my watch an hour into the film. Even the animation, which is so extraordinary, loses its pizzazz after the seventh angry ocean sequence.

MOANA is making a shit-ton of money, and like I said, every critic has lavished it with praise. So take my review as the lone dissenting voice. Either that or some critics were afraid to say they didn’t like it for fear that they’d be in the minority or they'd no longer get fast passes at Disneyland. Lin-Manual Miranda will probably win an Oscar because (a) this is his year, and (b) what else is there in that category? There’s no Bond movie this year. But at the screening I attended, parents were taking their kids out of the theater throughout the entire film. Warning: There are a number of scenes that might scare the shit out of your little tyke. ( Either that or mom needed to use the bathroom and that was her excuse.)

I realize that most people don’t go to Disney animated movies to follow a great story or marvel in the advancements in the art of animation. They go because of the formulas. It’s reliable. They get songs, cute animals, a courageous heroine who is maybe voting age, pretty images, and it’s 90 fewer minutes parents have to entertain their kids. (I’m sure by the end of Christmas vacation parents will wish the movie were four hours.) But it bothers me that critics are comparing MOANA to the best of Disney. That it is not.

I also worry that when they do the inevitable Broadway stage musical of MOANA people in the first twenty rows are going to get soaked.

34 comments:

Peter said...

Ken, you MUST go and see ALLIED. It's fantastic. I love Zemeckis and except for some shoddy CGI effects he totally delivers. It's an exciting, moving and intelligent movie set in World War II for grown-ups. Zemeckis doesn't shy away from violence, sex and swearing. It's the kind of movie I wish Spielberg would make if he just allowed himself to make an entertaining film for adults that happens to be historical rather than being a worthy "important" historical movie. I mean, I loved Munich but it seems the only times he allows himself to get into R rated territory is doing one of his "serious" true story movies.

VP81955 said...

Sounds too formulaic, unlike the superior "Zootopia." (Oh, and Ken: Shouldn't that reference be to "Let It Go," not "Let It Be"?)

Covarr said...

Of course they're not comparing it against the best of Disney. When you try to compare any film to BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, it comes up short. Heck, even THE PRESTIGE and FIGHT CLUB and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION come up short against B&TB.

Buggy White said...

You are a brave man, Ken Levine!

blinky said...

Speaking of things everyone seems to love: The Gilmore Girls. I never saw the original but I saw the new Netflix version. Talk about a talkie! It seemed like they has 90 minutes of dialogue that had to be read in 60. Everybody had the same rapid fire delivery that sounded like a hurried read thru. Is it for 12 year old girls of do I just not get it?

Craig Gustafson said...

"There are a number of scenes that might scare the shit out of your little tyke."

Like the donkey transformation scene in "Pinocchio"?
The queen turning into a hag in "Snow White"?
Jerry Colonna's singing in "Make Mine Music"?

Daws said...

Took my 3 granddaughters (7,6 and 4) and they enjoyed it. When the evil coconuts showed up, I mentally checked out.

LAprGuy said...

Ok, good, I thought I was alone in not enjoying MOANA. Teen daughter loved it, but even then said it was not as good as FROZEN.

404 said...

Most Disney movies are basically the same story over and over again. There are some exceptions (THE RESCUERS, for example) but even there you have the same tropes like the goofy secondary characters, etc. I just had a conversation with my kids the other night about how there's only a handful of real stories out there, and everything we see, hear, or read are just variations on those ideas.

Esoteric Friday question, Ken: based on that, how many different sitcom ideas do you think are really out there? And how many sitcoms are just rehashings of the same things over and over again in just slightly different situations?

Daniel said...

"Either that or some critics were afraid to say they didn’t like it for fear that they’d be in the minority or they'd no longer get fast passes at Disneyland."

How common do you think that is in the critical community? Is there a fear in the critical community of going against the conventional wisdom? I feel a lot of times that there's a predetermined narrative that the critical press has decided to go with and most critics seem to fall in line with that. Is that real or am I reading too much into it?

ODJennings said...

You forgot to mention the 4 minute action sequence in every Disney movie that's obviously there to show you what the future ride will be based on, in this case the ride that will neatly shoehorn in between Tiki Room and Jungle Cruise.

Ralph C. said...

Haven't seen it. I never will. Thanks for the review, Ken. Some movies should be watched in this manner--reading someone's review of it.

sarah said...

before we give too much credit to uncle walt's skills in keeping things short, i point you to the two hour, twenty minute mary poppins...my eight year old loved moana. i liked it better than frozen (seriously, a minor change in parenting philosophy and there would have been no movie at all...), but less than zootopia. i particularly appreciated the lack of any romantic subplot at all in this one (and zootopia).

Sharon J said...

Unless, the Lin-Manuel Miranda train continues to run over everything in its path (as it should for all things HAMILTON), My money's on 'Try Everything' from ZOOTOPIA to win all the best song awards.

flurb said...

The predetermined narrative Daniel mentions may just be consensus, but I've noticed that after the recent election, left-of-center sites like Slate and Salon seem to be positioning MOANA's hit status as a progressive win for the culture: "See, we're not an entirely racist bunch of jerks." There was a similar approval this summer of the multicultural aspects of the set-in-Japan KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, though most critics didn't seem to notice that the voice cast was, except for George Takei, all white movie stars.

Speaking of stars and the history of Disney, though, honestly, does anyone care artistically that movie stars are such a part of these latter-day packages? Except when actors and comics have improvised and developed material - like the late Robin Williams and, I'm guessing, Ellen DeGeneres - I can't see much of an upside except promotion - which admittedly is a big deal... But it can backfire eventually: Mel Gibson's adequate vocal presences in the otherwise excellent POCAHONTAS and CHICKEN RUN make me wince a little now, and the topical references Williams added to ALADDIN must leave today's kids and parents scratching their heads. Walt himself cast honest-to-god great voice talents, honed in radio but without star status, that fitted the characters. As Ken has hinted before, people who are very good-looking are not necessarily funny - or talented behind a microphone. (Listen to LA Theatreworks, and you can hear the variable talent pool.)

Jon B. said...

With each new Disney animation that follows the "formula", I wonder if negative reactions like yours are directly related to when weariness of the formula kicks in.

As for the recommendation by a commenter above for the movie ALLIED, I enjoyed it but Brad Pitt is curiously wooden in his role. The decision to dial back the charm was not a good one, it would seem.

On the GILMORE GIRLS comment, the new shows on Netflix are pretty much what fans and detractors would expect. If you didn't care for it before, you won't watch very much of the new ones. If you've never seen it, you are either going to wonder what all the fuss is about or you will be inspired to binge watch the original. Ever since it debuted 2000, I have never been able to talk someone into liking GG.

Alan Christensen said...

Moana only gets a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so you're not quite alone.

Andrew said...

1) I wish Disney would do more crazy and hallucinogenic stuff like the Pink Elephants sequence in Dumbo.

2) A bit off topic but to answer Daniel's question - "How common do you think that is in the critical community? Is there a fear in the critical community of going against the conventional wisdom?" I remember hearing that many critics secretly hated "The Last Temptation of Christ" when it came out. They thought it was a lousy movie. But they jumped on the bandwagon and praised it to the skies so that they could stick it to the fundamentalists. I think it was Michael Medved who reported this (and of course he could be biased).

YEKIMI said...

This is the first Disney movie I can recall that actually has a pee joke in it.

ODJennings said...

If you think Disney can't do dark, watch the BORROWED TIME short from Pixar.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USQDxdMyKdk

Dhruv said...

Thank you Mr.Levine for reviewing a movie after a long time.

You are the best in the sense, you are independent and have nothing to gain or lose with reviewing. But other critics sort of go with the crowd.
Boyhood - all critics went overboard with praise and only one didn't like. That person was panned and trolled (he wrote an article too about it, forgot his name).

Some critics/reviewers of big newspapers here, have to give decent ratings since that moviemaker or theatres give ads or entire promotion deal to the media houses. An unholy nexus.

Regarding "shit-ton of money" - all big-studio animated movies will make good money; because the audiences are kids of those who struggled due to poverty and a closed economy. Now with liberalization, they want their kids to have fun and see movies they couldn't. Hence family outing to malls ends with a movie for kids.

These big-studios apart from getting great reviews, distribute little toys and stickers and what-not related to the movie to children thru schools (many palms are greased there too). The excited kids in turn pester their parents, who happily oblige.

In such scenario, animated movies are easy money to be made, hence recycling of old formulas.

Melissa C. Banczak said...

We saw it yesterday. The Mad Max coconuts were my favorite part. Thought the whole thing was a nice movie. Probably wouldn't buy it though. I hated Frozen so very much. Beauty and the Beast is my favorite Disney Movie. Big Hero 6 my fav non Disney. Or was that officially Disney?

D. McEwan said...

Well, the thing about cobbling a kid's movie together out of way over-used cliches is, if you're a little kid, the intended audience, and you're seeing them for the first time, they're not yet cliches.

That said, having no kids, I'll be skipping it.

D. McEwan said...

"YEKIMI said...
This is the first Disney movie I can recall that actually has a pee joke in it."


Did you miss Finding Nemo? There was a baby octopus character that, every time she was excited or scared, would "Ink herself." Yes, it was ink, not pee, but the gag clearly was that she was constantly pissing herself, only it was OK because it was "Ink."

Ryan Dawson said...

Few movies -- including live-action -- in the last few years have made me laugh as hard or as often as PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR.

Pat Reeder said...

I think that Disney has now refined a formula as specific as a cake recipe, and all they're doing is spinning a globe, putting their finger down and randomly picking a different location/culture/ethnicity to apply it to. "Moana" is the South Pacific version. "Beauty and the Beast" was the Germanic version. "Mulan" was the Chinese version. "The Princess and the Frog" was the African-American/Creole version. "Frozen" was the Icelandic version. "The Little Mermaid" was the Amphibian-American version. It's the United Colors of Benetton of cliches.

To Blinky: I never saw "Gilmore Girls" either, but based on clips and parodies that I've seen, I assume they must film it the way Howard Hawks directed "His Girl Friday": by timing a run-through with a stop watch, then making the actors redo it faster and faster until the original 90-second scene zipped by in 45 seconds.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken!!! Huge fan of yours, I'm 17 & I've been binge watched all of cheers in a month. Idk if you'll even see this but I am just as immensely confused as to why Sam & Diane didn't end up together. I am a die hard fan of theirs & I've analyzed their relationship multiple times and I can't get understand why they couldn't just be together. I get that they were different but that what made their dynamic work. Diane brought out a sensitive side in San and Sam brought out a spontaneous side in Diane. Also, Sam had so much character growth through the whole 11 seasons. By the end, he had finally got over that womanizing phase and was ready to settle down and really commit. The only person he ever truly loved was Diane. By not making them end up together, it erased the 11 years of growth and the show basically ended where it started. Diane is the only woman he would ever truly be happy with and you know they are never going to get over each other. Most people wanted them to end up together so why couldn't they just to satisfy the fans that waited so long to see Diane return? I get that you wanted it to be somewhat realistic and show that sometimes no matter how much you love a person you just are too different blah blah but also this is a fictional show so couldn't you just let us all be happy and given us the Sam/Diane ending we all wanted? You could have used the alternate ending scene for the series finale which was written so perfectly and would have been such a treat to see Sam & Diane back in their element. No disrespect whatsoever & I really admire your work. I just don't understand!!

YEKIMI said...

@ D. McEwan

Nope, never saw Finding Nemo or Finding Dory. Something fishy about those Pixar movies.

YEKIMI said...

Oh, and @ D. McEwan, technically "Finding Nemo" wasn't a Disney movie as it was released in 2003 and Disney didn't acquire Pixar till 2006. So my comment stands. ;-}

Andrew said...

Answer to Anonymous re Sam and Diane:

"It's just a tv show!" - William Shatner

Anonymous said...

All of these Disney princess flicks are supposed to be acceptable so long as you keep insisting that the movies are "empowering."

OrangeTom said...

Wonder how much the quality was impacted by rewrites from the original story. I think Entertainment Weekly reported that it initially focused a lot more on the Rock's character, and I know from Miranda's twitter feed that what he contributed was based on a work that definitely changed a lot by the time of release.

Chris said...

I saw Moana two days ago and despite buying one of the tracks and listening to one of the pop "covers" that played over the credits, I can't remember the songs beyond their conceit. I loved the David Bowie as crab demon bit but... eh? I read an article about how one of the songs from the movie is CLEARLY this year's "Let It Go" but I will be damned if I could hum it for you if my life depended on it. Which is funny because the screening I saw was bookended by a trailer for the live action Beauty and the Beast and even the few notes played there conjured up entire songs... and the ongoing sense of why the holy hell would anyone remake THAT?!!?

Visually it was stunning, I was moved to tears a couple of times (I'm sorry, the scene of toddler Moana playing with the ocean just... IT WAS DUSTY!!!) and I'm really glad I saw it. But this is going to be a movie I get the DVD specifically for all the behind the scenes footage and research more than actually seeing the movie again.

Diane D said...

Anonymous
Ken addresses that question on April 16, 2016, and there are a lot of comments about the issue over two days, if you want to read it.
And just ignore Andrew's comment above. People who say that just don't get it.