Moana – A Pixaresque experience or not?

Disney goes Polynesian
Disney goes Polynesian

This will be a shorter than usual review blog post.  Several days ago I took my youngest girl to see Moana.  Full disclosure – I own a few shares of Disney in my IRA.

I have long admired Disney’s films, several of my children/grandchildren have enjoyed them through the ages, and I love what the merger with Pixar has done to the animation field.  While Moana is not actually a Pixar film (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Inside Out) but a Disney Animation film (Frozen, Tangled, Zootopia).  What both operations have in common is executive producer and head of Animation for Disney, John Lasseter. 

Now you have many imitators of the Pixar/Disney CGI animation creations.  Dreamworks (Dragons, Trolls), Illuminations (Minions) and others pale in comparison to Pixar for one key reason:  story.  Look at the trio of Toy Story films, the family feelings in Finding Nemo.  For me, if I had to choose one example of how superior Pixar is in this field, it’s the married life montage in Up.  You may have mixed feelings about the overall film (Still one of my favorites) but this montage is emotionally powerful…and it’s just a fancier version of a cartoon!  How do you start the film with such a bittersweet theme…and then make it soar?  Great writing, that’s how! Pixar sketches characters that make us care and it takes the time to paint the depth of the characters.  Watch Wall-e interact with Eve when he first meets her.  Is there any better example of awkward teenage crushes but when he keeps wanting to hold her “hand?”

Back to Moana:  It’s not a Pixar, but it’s a good solid effort by Disney.  But Keith, you say, what different does it make whether it’s Pixar or Disney?  They own them both.

The difference is the writing.  As a teenager, I had a brother who was a communication arts major in college and he was focusing on the Looney Tunes animators of the Golden Era at Warner Brothers.  He would watch the cartoons with me and point out the difference between a Chuck Jones short and a Tex Avery short.  He could show the difference between a Robert McKimson effort, a crazy Bob Clampett piece, and a Ub Iwerks classic.  More than anything, he would show me all the “inside jokes” that laced a short written by Michael Maltese, Tedd Pierce (the two marooned men in this piece were animated by the artists as representations of Pierce and Maltese).

Today, I look for which Pixar writer is penning the latest effort.  I love a good Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), Pete Docter (Toy Story, Up, Monsters Inc., Inside Out) or Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, Wall-E, Finding Nemo – also the voice of Crush)effort.  Most of the films above are collaborative efforts with other writers at Pixar.  We find that the Pixar films entertain and touch us because the writing treats us, regardless of age, like adults.  Tell me that you weren’t a puddle on the floor when Jessie tells her story in Toy Story 2 then you don’t have a pulse. Powerful stuff.

Again…BACK TO MOANA.  Moana is a good effort, but it is a Disney Animation picture NOT a Pixar film in the mode of the above examples.  Perhaps I have unfair expectations because of the best of the Pixar films.  Not every one is a classic.  I’m not a fan of the Cars series and could care less about the coming of Cars 3.  But most film studios would kill to connect with their audience the way so many Pixar flicks have.  There are few live action films that hit you the way the end of Toy Story 3 does…or when one hears the amazing Peter O’Toole, as Anton Ego, try to explain his experience at having enjoyed the greatest meal even…that was prepared by Remi the rat.  All of these moments work, not because of great CGI effects, but because the writers have created complex but appealing characters and the director has allowed the pace to make us believe that these characters exist and, most importantly, have feelings we can relate to.  Moana, alas, is not one of these classics.

Moana is more like Brave, Beauty and the Beast, or Frozen.  That doesn’t mean it’s bad.  The film has fun songs (Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda contributed) an adventuresome premise, and a winning character in Maui played with gusto by Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson.  A nice sprinkling of Polynesian culture and attitudes inhabits much of the effort, but we have seen the main plot many times before.  Overprotective and unhinged dad tries to prevent daughter/future successor from taking risky voyage to save their people.  This is why I cited Brave etc. as the examples from Disney animation.  Again, the film is fine.  My daughter had a good time.  I guess I was expecting more.

And to be honest, I am getting tired of the overbearing dad portrayals who in the end must suck it up and admit to the young brash reckless daughter that she was right.  Horsepucky.  More often than not, Dad will go to great lengths to rescue the daughter from her folly, often with nary a “I told you so.”  But then, that doesn’t fit in well with today’s youth culture narrative.

And THAT is why this review is in a blog about modern culture.  The Pixar films don’t make parenting harder, but I would dearly love to slap around the sassy Scottish archer who turned her mother into a bear, the snotty Scandinavian princess who got engaged on a whim, or the bunny who wanted to be a cop because that was “her dream” and darned near got killed several times and permanently scarring her parents.  (Marlin was right that Nemo should have listened to him.  Good thing Australian dentists make insecure aquariums)  The Disney “arrogant impulsive daughters know better than daddy” movies are made by men-boys whose daughters haven’t become teenagers yet.

I know I know…”you kids get offa my lawn.”  Let me have it in the comment section.  🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *