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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review: Moana

Moana (2016): Written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, and Aaron and Jordan Kandell, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.  Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, and Alan Tudyk.  Running Time: 107 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            Ever since Disney began diving back into the timeless moneypool of the Princess Musical form of animation with Princess and the Frog (which I still hold to be vastly underappreciated), the results have slowly improved with each new film, but so far none of them have achieved real greatness.  Yes, Tangled and Frozen are beloved new household favorites that made oodles of cash, and they are quite good, but they both had more than a few character, story, or technical problems holding them back.  Moana, to my relief, almost point-for-point improves on every criticism I’ve had of the past few films, and is, in my book, the best of the latest generation of Disney musicals to date. 

            Our titular character is the daughter of the chief of the small Pacific island of Motunui, preparing to follow in his footsteps and become the first female chieftain in the island’s history (oh, how I wish writing that was less painful).  Despite her father’s strict insistence that their island home is all they need, and that the world beyond their reef has nothing to offer, Moana feels pulled to the sea from an early age, and in fact has the ability to communicate with and even manipulate waves to some extent.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen another movie where water itself is a character.  It moves in ripples with every shade of blue imaginable.  It’s easily the best water animation I’ve seen since… know, it’s actually even better than Finding Nemo, and that’s one of my all-time favorites. 

            Her grandmother, who insists that they must eventually sail beyond the island to save the sea from an encroaching darkness set loose inadvertently by the Demigod Maui, does not approve of this strict isolationism, and gently prods her granddaughter to further explore the seafaring past of their people before they settled on the current island home.  Soon, the darkness does indeed start to arrive and kill off the fish and coconuts that the islanders require to survive, so Moana finally defies her father and sets out to find Maui and his magical fishhook, so that he can help her return a priceless artifact that holds the key to stopping the darkness spreading across the waves.   

            Part of what’s plagued the most recent movies in Disney’s musical canon has been inconsistency with the music, with the songs either being mostly forgettable (Princess and the Frog) or often feeling terribly disjointed and out of place alongside the film’s setting or musical score ( see Tangled and Frozen).  Thankfully, Moana does not suffer from this problem.  While none of the contributions of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i have quite the same movie-defining gravitas of Let It Go, or are as instantly iconic as some of the numbers from the Disney Renaissance of the 90’s, they are solid, catchy, and most importantly, fuse perfectly with Mark Mancina’s score and feel like a cohesive part of the film, as opposed to ditties tossed out of left field because “we have to have a song here, I guess.” 

            It is also, and I am so glad I can finally write this, an immense relief that there is no romantic subplot in sight.  I worried at first that the delightful buddy-comedy dynamics of Moana and Maui would give way to a romance at the very end, but thank God, we never tread (nor swim) there.  Not that romances are inherently bad in these sorts of films- Frozen had a fairly clever spin on theirs- but because they are so universally expected in every movie, I don’t think I would recall one that I found unforced if I tried. 

            More than anything else, Moana benefits from focusing itself on what, in the end, is a pretty small story.  For all the talk of saving the ocean and battling lava monsters of darkness, it boils down to just being two different types of people trying to get along on a boat while handling their own insecurities.  The film never really tries to do much more than that, and because it does it so well, the result is much more effective than that of many films that try and fail to be “bigger” in some thematic sense (although there is certainly a Globalization vs. Isolationism debate that can be drawn from Moana’s conversations with her father, for those so inclined). 

            Most of this comes down to great casting in the two lead roles- The Rock brings his established starpower and patented charisma to the table as Maui, and while he certainly gets plenty of the film’s best lines, his counterpart, newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, is a wonderful revelation as Moana.  Listening to this immensely talented young woman match a much older superstart point for point was one of the highlights of any movie I saw this year, and I sincerely hope we get to see more of her in the coming years. 

            This is also only the third of the Disney musical films to have a non-white lead, and while increasing diversity in pop culture has been important for a long time anyway, the fact that this film is coming out (and pulling in a profit) right now, in the wake of a wave of xenophobia and white nationalism breaking across the US and Europe and with the prospect of a Trump Presidency looming before us, makes the very existence of movies like Moana all the more important and precious. 

            In fact, this importance, and the fact that, some inevitable controversy notwithstanding, the film and its production team mostly did everything right they needed to do right, really does outweigh a lot of the criticisms of the movie as a movie that I could come up with.  It does indeed stick to standard Disney formula, right down to the silly side characters and a few reach jokes that fall flat.  We know almost immediately what the characters arcs for Moana and Maui will be, making most of the third act wholly predictable.  But because we need Moana in all her glory as a pop culture figure now more than ever, no, those issues really don’t matter as much. 

            Moana and its earlier 2016 counterpart Zootopia are the kinds of film I’ve been waiting for to be able to join the chorus of cinephiles saying that we are on the cusp of another Disney revival.  I was skeptical until now, but the more I think about both of these movies the more I dig them, and if they truly are harbingers for a new wave of great Disney animation to come, I will be there to greet it with open arms and childlike glee. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Review- Star Wars: Rogue One

Star Wars: Rogue One (2016): Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, directed by Gareth Edwards.  Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, and Forest Whitaker.  Running Time: 133 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            The death of my beloved EU aside, so far I must admit that I am quite enjoying the cinematic return to the Star Wars universe we are now in the midst of.  The Force Awakens was a great dive back into the broad space opera of the original films, and this year’s smaller Rogue One will hopefully be the first icebreaker that allows subsets of the main trilogies to further push the bounds of what types of stories and characters can be pulled from the universe’s boundless potential.  Like The Force Awakens, it stumbles a bit in its eagerness to stoke our collective sense of nostalgia, and plot issues abound, but when the movie is on, it’s on, and features a few scenes that deserve to rank among the best of the current Star Wars film canon. 

            Pretty much everyone seeing this will know this is an immediate prequel to A New Hope- the first Star Wars thing the world ever saw was Leia fleeing Darth Vader with the plans to the Death Star, and this is the tale of how, exactly, the rebels managed to acquire said plans.  The main vehicle for this tale is a young, hard-bitten criminal named Jyn (Felicity Jones), whose father happens to be one of the original engineers crucial to the development of the Death Star.  She’s been roaming the galaxy on her own until the day when she is “recruited” by the Rebel Alliance right at the same time an Imperial defector (Riz Ahmed) appears, claiming to have been sent by her father with instructions on how to find plans for the superweapon that hold the key to its destruction. 

            There is a little bit of winding around the galaxy throughout the first two acts to get to it, but eventually Jyn, the defector, Rebel captain/assassin Cassian (Diego Luna), and his accompanying battle droid K-2 (a hilarious and brilliant Alan Tudyk) team up with a pair of former guards of an old Jedi Temple, Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior-priest, and Baze (Jiang Wen), a gruffy shoot-em-up type, to hatch a madcap scheme to break into a major Imperial facility holding the plans. 

            The biggest problems with the film come in the windy parts in the first two acts- while the mixed batch in our rogue’s gallery of heroes are all well-acted and a lot of fun to watch (and it’s great to see such an ethnically mixed cast too), there just isn’t much in the stories given to Jyn and Cassian to work with.  As such, the story backgrounds built up in a lot of the world-hopping we have to sit through (which a lot of viewers may find boring) aren’t really fully justified, and a tighter narrative with a greater focus on the action and intrigue in the third act would likely have made for a more powerful movie. 

            None of it is bad, to be clear, just largely unexceptional.  Where the film DOES shine is in the craft of its filmmaking- this is a gorgeously-shot work, with some of the smoothest and most enjoyable action sequences we’ve yet gotten in any of these films, original, prequel, or otherwise.  The entire third act is damn near flawless, evenly balancing out a wide range of action from space battles to pitched firefights to sneaky electrical sabotage, and all of the pleasantly colorful cast members get their moment to shine.  It reminded me that we’ve never really had this sort of ensemble piece in a Star Wars film before, and given the huge numbers of characters that could be put together for this sort of story, I hope this is a harbinger of things to come. 

            Like with The Force Awakens, shouts-outs and in-jokes referring to the other films abound, and like with last year’s entry, they’re very much a mixed bag.  Some are really clever, and the way they utilize Darth Vader (oh how we’ve all missed you, James Earl Jones) is inspired.  Others are not.  Something many people will find too troubling to dismiss is the decision to use only CGI to recreate two old characters in particular whose actors were either dead or way too old to be used in this particular film.  It’s very good CGI, but it’s still obvious it’s CGI.  This might end up being a bit of a watershed if CGI humans ever do get the point where we can’t tell the difference anymore, but we are not there yet, and while it is certainly a very interesting attempt, I can’t blame anyone for finding them just too off-putting. 

            But when it really comes down to it, I can’t bring myself to complain too much, because I really did have a ton of fun watching this movie, and I think most people will too.  It’s not perfect, and I will let the debate over where it ranks compared to the other movies to those who care way more about that sort of thing than I ever will, but it is a well-crafted enough film (with a few genuinely beautiful and haunting scenes) to merit seeing on the big screen.  Treat your inner Jedi this Christmas.  You’ve earned it, anonymous reader I will likely never meet.  At least I assume you have.    

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016): Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, directed by Travis Knight.  Starring: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, and Rooney Mara.  Running Time: 102 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            If you must blink, do it now.  For if you look away for even a second, this review will fail, and it’s writer will surely die.  Or at least be condemned to watching lesser animated fare like Sing or The Secret Life of Pets for the rest of eternity.  *shudders*  

            This threat is not terribly dissimilar to the one facing our hero, Kubo (Art Parkinson), as he seeks to discover the legacy of his late father, the legendary samurai Hanzo.  Possessing the ability to use his magical shamisen to manipulate objects like leaves and pieces of paper however he wishes, Kubo is at first wholly ignorant of why he and his mother live alone in a seaside cave, why he is strictly forbidden from leaving the cave at night, and why he only has one eye.  He finds out in terrible fashion one night when he stays in the local village just a bit too long, and his mother’s twin sisters (both expertly voiced by Rooney Mara) descend from the moon to kill him and his mother and steal his remaining eye. 

            His mother uses the last of her magic powers (she appears to have once a powerful sorcerous, but grief over the loss of her husband slowly dimmed her strength over the years), to send Kubo away under the protection of a monkey talisman brought to life.  Kubo and the monkey (Charlize Theron) are soon joined by an anthropomorphic beetle (Matthew McConaughey) claiming to have been trained by Hanzo himself.  They set out to find the legendary three great treasures that offer Kubo’s only defense against the powerful magic of the sisters and their father, the Moon King. 

            It’s a perfect example of the classic Hero’s Journey we’ve seen a thousand times before, yet done so point-perfect and with such obvious vision that it rises above most of its competitors into something unique and special.  This movie was in production for almost a decade, and it shows, as its lavish and detailed visual design left me gaping in every other scene.  Everything from the way hair and clothing moves to how waves rise and fall looks so realistic you have to keep reminding yourself you’re watching clay figures that were photographed a shot at a time. 

            This is so much more than a lights show though.  The voice acting breathes beautifully animated life into the characters, and when you least expect it to, the movie uses its story to turn to themes of forgiveness, love, and family, and the importance of building community with those around you.  There are story quibbles to be had- later reveals about the background of Monkey and Beetle raise more questions than they answer- but these are minor distractions from what is otherwise one of the best movies, animated or otherwise, to come out this year.

            I still find it supremely disappointing that Laika has never had quite the box-office success (nor the awards success) that the other major animations studios in America have had, because they have firmly established themselves as the new Pixar of the US animation scene, created brilliant, original, and cutting-edge works that push the boundaries of stop-motion animation much like how Pixar has expanded the possibilities of computer animation.  By all rights this and ParaNorman both deserved much better success than they had (this one just barely broke even at the box office). 

            That said, Kubo is still such a masterful piece of work, I am confident it will still find its audience and will remain and enduring work for years to come.  Like its score and the magical, reality-altering music of Kubo himself, it rises and soars on its own vision to heights most movies can only dream of reaching. 

-Noah Franc