Dis­ney’s beau­ti­ful CG spec­ta­cle will warm your soul

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FILM - By ROB­BIE COLLIN

“We know where we are! We know who we are!” sing the Pa­cific Is­land nav­i­ga­tors of Moana in We Know The Way, as their boats crash through an ocean shim­mer­ing with sun­light and foam. It’s a dec­la­ra­tion that stays with you, partly thanks to the song’s nu­clear catch­i­ness — the Samoan cry of “aue aue!” that fol­lows will ring in your soul for weeks. But also be­cause it catches the film’s spirit in a fin­ger­snap.

Feuds, fir­ings, and the most rad­i­cal Dis­ney princess yet: the mak­ing of Moana.

Get­ting all meta­phys­i­cal about show-tunes can be treach­er­ous ter­ri­tory, even ones co-writ­ten (as Moana’s are) by Lin-Manuel “Hamil­ton” Mi­randa. But the two con­trast­ing senses of iden­tity picked out in that song — where we’re from and where we’re headed — are what make Walt Dis­ney An­i­ma­tion Stu­dios’ 56th fea­ture tick.

Moana of Mo­tunui (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is the dis­tant de­scen­dant of Oceanic nav­i­ga­tors who feels wan­der­lust wash­ing over her as she hits her mid-teens. (Her name is the Samoan for deep wa­ter, and she shares it with a 1926 film about Poly­ne­sian life by the doc­u­men­tarist Robert J Fla­herty.) Her fa­ther, Chief Tui (Te­muera Mor­ri­son), is a staunch dry land type — but an eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter forces his daugh­ter to take the ini­tia­tive, along with a small ca­noe, and set off for far-flung shores with a crys­tal that can re­store bal­ance to the king­dom.

You’ ll have per­haps no­ticed a dis­tinct lack of hand­some princes here. Even more so than the spik­ily re­vi­sion­ist Frozen, whose $1.3 bil­lion fur-lined boots Moana has the un­en­vi­able task of step­ping into, the film pushes the Dis­ney Princess into un­charted wa­ters in more ways than one. It was di­rected by two ven­er­a­ble masters of the form, John Musker and Ron Cle­ments, the duo be­hind The Lit­tle Mer­maid, The Princess and the Frog and oth- ers, and they know where this long-es­tab­lished for­mula can be prod­ded and coaxed in new di­rec­tions.

A Let It Go- like heart’s-de­sire bal­lad is ba­si­cally a non-ne­go­tiable — and in the soar­ing, as­pi­ra­tional How Far I’ll Go, Moana gets a fine one — as is the comic re­lief, which here takes the burly form of Maui (Dwayne John­son, adorable as per), a prank-prone Poly­ne­sian demigod who can shape-shift with a swipe of his magic fish­ing hook.

But other seem­ing cor­ner­stones are dug up with gusto. Not least of them is the prince quota — and even Moana’s of­fi­cial ti­tle, which in one scene she ir­ri­ta­bly clar­i­fies isn’t “princess” at all, but daugh­ter of the chief. (“Same dif­fer­ence,” Maui shrugs, un­per­suaded, while look­ing at Hei­hei, Moana’s pet rooster, who’s tagged along for the trip. “If you wear a dress and have an an­i­mal side­kick, you’re a princess.”)

For the most part, Moana evolves the genre rather than re­build­ing it from scratch — and its recog­nis­ably clas­si­cal shape doesn’t leave space for the kind of gen­uinely provoca­tive ideas that ran through Zootropo­lis, Dis­ney’s other, dif­fer­ent great 2016 an­i­mated fea­ture. But it’s nonethe­less brim­ming over with spec­ta­cle and visual in­ven­tive­ness.

When Moana and Maui come face to face with the Kakamora — buc­ca­neer­ing, co­conut sprites whose ships re­sem­ble wa­ter­borne ver­sions of the rigs from Mad Max: Fury Road — what fol­lows is the wit­ti­est, tens­est, most fiendishly chore­ographed ac­tion se­quence of the year. Then there’s Tam­a­toa, a gi­ant, Je­maine Cle­ment-voiced crab with pen­chants for Bowie and bi­jouterie, whose own mu­si­cal num­ber, Shiny bursts and glows with glam-pop flu­o­res­cence. Set­pieces like these are where the stu­dio’s tech­no­log­i­cal prow­ess blazes bright­est, and also in the am­bi­ent ef­fects such as waves, storm and sun­beams. What daz­zles you isn’t their dig­i­tal in­ge­nu­ity, but their beauty.

More im­pres­sively still, Moana rec­on­ciles all of this with a hand­drawn aes­thetic that feels gen­uinely ex­pres­sive and spon­ta­neous. Of­ten it’s ac­tively spotlit, as in the You’re Wel­come mu­si­cal num­ber which has Maui and Moana vib­ing out in­side a rain­bow of doo­dles — or in Maui’s mini al­ter ego, a Jiminy Cricket-like sen­tient tat­too brought to mad, elas­tic life by the great Eric Gold­berg, the an­i­ma­tor be­hind Aladdin’s Ge­nie.

But else­where it’s so nat­u­ral you al­most don’t no­tice it. When Moana tum­bles into the ocean, she’s of­ten scooped up by a friendly swell, and the ef­fort­less ex­pres­siv­ity of that sin­gle, curved line — which dur­ing the film por­trays emo­tions that range from af­fec­tion to frus­tra­tion, shock to amuse­ment, that are im­me­di­ately and crisply recog­nis­able — is an in­vis­i­ble tri­umph of tac­tile visual think­ing. CG an­i­ma­tion can be an in­nately icy medium, but three years into Dis­ney’s post-Frozen era, they’ve never felt warmer.

Dir: John Musker, Ron Cle­ments Voices: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne John­son, Rachel House, Te­muera Mor­ri­son, Je­maine Cle­ment, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk PG cert, 113 mins.

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