About halfway through Disney’s latest epic animated adventure Moana (2016), Dwayne Johnson’s cocky demi-god Maui quips; “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” The moment is unabashedly tongue-in-cheek for the house of mouse studio, who, ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), have built a global juggernaut status around women being the homemaker, saved by the kiss of a beautiful man. Showing just how far they’ve come, the film’s stubborn and strong-willed protagonist is quick to set the record straight that she is not, in fact, a Polynesian princess, but rather Moana of Motunui, the daughter of the village chief. The distinction is an important one and something that defines the rest of the magical and moving 100-minute journey. As by reshaping their once stringent parameters rather than destroying them completely, the studio craftily creates what could easily be their best film to date.
Drawing on familiar notes of Disney princesses of old, Moana follows a young girl trapped on an island where nobody leaves, imbued with dreams of a bigger and better life. Longing to set sail on the sea, when her island begins to darken and die, Moana’s grandmother tasks her with finding the famed demi-god Maui to make him return the heart of Te Fiti, the mythical Mother Earth goddess. Like those before her, she finds it is no easy task, with the plucky protagonist forced to battle the cute coconut Kakamora pirates, a giant self-absorbed crab and a monster of volcanic proportions, all while plagued with a pretty big case of identity crisis. To offset some of this despair, Moana is aided in her quest by a comical animal companion, her somewhat stupid and clumsy chicken Hei Hei. While Disney-verse sidekicks usually provide help and assistance, Hei Hei bucks the trend with his continual near-death experiences, which would be rather alarming if they weren’t so hilarious, thus making for a refreshing and un-formulaic experience. Adding to the reinvigorated feel is the lack of romantic interests, instead providing us the selfish yet redeemable mentor Maui to assist Moana’s character progression.
With destiny at the film’s forefront and bravado in Moana’s soul, it is hard to argue that our hero’s journey bears significant difference to those that have come before. When looking at the smaller intricacies employed however, including the visuals utilised, it is well and truly in a league of its own. Whether it is the ultra-realistic glisten of the ocean or the trippy The Road to El Dorado (2000) nature of Maui’s solo song, the film frames itself as an incredible piece. Co-director’s Jon Musker and Ron Clements’ years of experience are clearly on show, as they enhance the familiar hand drawn imagery with the endless possibilities the latest CG technology presents. A film set almost entirely on the open ocean can easily become tedious, so it is a testament to the animators that even the smallest movements and motions ebb and flow rather than stagnate. Best of all, the briny deep becomes an entity all of its own here, saving Moana and her pet chicken countless times and reminding us there is a moral to be learned about respecting the climate we call home.
That respect translates to the Polynesian culture at the heart of the film too, from the lush tropical wilderness, to the coconuts and tribal tattoos that abound. Drawing on the teachings and traditions of her ancestors, as Mulan and Pocahontas did before her, Moana reminds us that we should be proud of our heritage no matter what that is. Stereotypes be damned, we are told to embrace and celebrate culture, not hide from it. Bearing curves to kill for and beautiful tanned skin, Moana is a strong-willed, stubborn and true leader, never afraid to give up. Best of all, such a role is treated like nothing out of the ordinary, represented in the moment her father Chief Tui speaks of their village’s patriarchic history, yet never blinks in mentioning her as the obvious successor. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho imbues the character with her own Hawaiian history and effortlessly ensures her bumbling nature, innocent dreams and youth are instantly likable. With her maturity and kindness, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are big things in that kid’s future, be it in show business or not.
Turning to the music, Lin Manuel Miranda ups the ante once more here after his incredible run with the hit-musical Hamilton, alongside fellow composers and craftsmen Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. Their songs are fresh, summery and downright catchy, imbuing each line with the sea-breeze and a strong heart. From Dwayne Johnson’s jazzy show-tune You’re Welcome, to the more sombre moments of Know Who You Are, viewers will feel as natural an affinity with the melodies as Moana does with the sea. Then there’s the powerhouse piece How Far I’ll Go, which rolls and breaks into the resounding I am Moana, with both pieces bound to resound with anyone who has ever lived by the ocean. Music is the soul of such movies and ever since Let it Go became the pop-culture phenomenon it did, we have been waiting for a new film to challenge its stance. I’m proud to say, any of the pieces here provide just as strong a message and they do it in a far less annoying way.
While many viewers will likely expect to leave the theatre drawing comparisons between this and Disney’s other delights, the real joy is in how this addition never shies away from its forbear’s problems, but embraces them to become better. While no-one may remember how Brave (2012) paved the way for a more relaxed and independent Disney princess, there should be no doubt in the knowledge that Moana will go down in the history books as the one that helped such an idea become mainstream. A worthy addition to Disney’s ever-expanding gallery of magical movies, it reminds us to find our calling inside ourselves and trust that we are worthy of it. And maybe, just maybe, if you listen to that voice inside you, one day you’ll know, how far you’ll go.
Rating: 4 Clumsy Chickens out of 5
Finding Dory Review - Disney and Pixar deliver a fun fishy sequel, which just keeps swimming right into our hearts
Nineties kids are a bit judgemental when it comes to Disney films. After all, we were the generation that lived through iconic classics Aladdin (1991), Beauty and the Beast (1992), The Lion King (1994), and Mulan (1998). So when it came time to make a sequel to our beloved Finding Nemo (2003) almost fourteen years after the aquatic crew first swam into theatres and our hearts, many a flag was flown about the potential problems that could ensue. However, those eagerly awaiting Finding Dory (2016) can finally breathe a sigh of relief, because despite our worst fears of another disappointment when it comes to Disney Pixar’s precocious sequels, this time round the studio manages to deliver a fun, fresh and fantastic fishy film.
The piece kicks off with the most heart-breaking sequence since 2009’s Up, teasing Dory’s beginnings in the Jewel of Morro Bay, California. The adorable young Blue Tang is being taught by parents Charlie and Jenny about how to deal with her disability, before an accident sees her lost and alone in the big wide blue. From this flashback we come full circle as Dory grows up, gradually forgets them, and meets Marlin one his way to find his son. Skipping ahead one year, Nemo is back in his anemone home safe and sound as Dad Marlin and best-friend Dory settle into life as usual. That is, until the stingray migration hits town, reminding Dory that her new family might not be her only one. The intrepid trio soon set off in search of her long lost (and long forgotten) parents, winding up at the Marine Institute of California. But with challenge after challenge and no parents to be found, Dory has to dig deep and remember that there really is no place like home.
Finding Dory certainly swims familiar waters, playing out as the reversed narrative of the first film, whereby the lost child seeks out the devastated parents. Sadly, the picture is relentless in its desire to pull on the heartstrings and elicit emotion. Instead of sadness, we receive loneliness, and instead of courage we receive fear. While co-directors Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane smartly tap into these feelings, tearing our hero down only to build her back up again, it just doesn’t have the same ease or endearing quality it did the first time round. Similarly, there is a distance form the first film, with only a handful of returning characters like Mr Ray, Squirt and Crush, who receive far too brief a moment in the spotlight to actually shine. One of the other let downs is the increased reliance on bigger and bolder actions. While it is feasible that a bunch of fish can roll their way to freedom in baggies, it is not quite as believable when a septopus steal a delivery truck and drives it off a cliff.
The newcomers make up plenty of ground though, proving fantastic additions to the elaborate undersea world. Ed O’Neill’s Hank is the breakout hit, as a hilariously cantankerous septopus so hell-bent on living in his own little bubble that he forgot how to have a family. Similarly, Bailey the Beluga and Destiny the Whale Shark are both wonderfully constructed, with humour and heart aplenty. Idris Elba’s Fluke and Dominic West’s Rudder might skew the storyline but they also steal the show, thanks to their brash humour and interactions with silent stars Becky the Loon and Gerald the Sea Lion. What is great about them though is the part they play in helping the film tackle a sensitive subject – that of disability. Not only is there Dory’s iconic short-term memory loss, and Nemo’s bad fin, but this time around we have the disfigured and dumb sub-characters; Becky the literal loon, Gerald the sea lion who never speaks a word, Hank the seven-armed octopus, and of course the pair of sight and sound challenged whales.
So, while at times the film feels as lost as the titular blue tang herself, flitting from one moment to the next, when control is exercised we can truly see why Pixar are a step above the rest. Great care has been taken, for instance, to make sure the Californian water appears notably different from the bright blues and crystal clear imagery we are used to. Similarly, as we delve underneath the surface of the Kid Zone pool we see a war like battle ground erupt, as fishy friends thrash for cover and hands reach down to touch, poke and grab. Just as fish are friends, not food, in Finding Nemo, this surreptitious sequel reminds us they are not cute and cuddly pets either, and should not be treated as such by parents letting children run amok.
Lessons are, of course, the heart and soul of film. From teaching us that even those with disabilities can live life to the fullest, to reminding us we can always find our way back home. However, the most endearing message the film promotes is the idea that it’s okay not to plan your life out. It’s okay to forget things, find a new family in your endeavours, and just go with the flow. For a child struggling to figure out what they want to do with life (or even us nineties kids), nothing could hit home more. So, just like the titular character herself remarks, remember to just keep swimming.
Rating: 4 Fishy Friends out of 5
Inside Out Review - Disney Pixar craft a wondrous world of mixed emotions in this stunning animation
After watching the beautiful short, Lava (2015), the type which always precedes any feature length Pixar piece, one could be fooled into thinking that the cinema experience couldn’t get any more heartfelt or poignant. It does. Welcome to the beautiful, transcendent and touching experience that is the world of Inside Out (2015).
The film takes us on a 90 minute journey traversing the inner workings of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) - our young protagonist’s - brain and psyche, notably how her central emotions; Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Fear (Bill Hader), impact how she lives and remembers moments of her life. From her first instants as a newborn baby, to her passion for hockey, and her loving family, Riley's life has mostly been a joyous one. All five of her glowing yellow core memories reflect this. But as she verges on the last days of true childhood, her family decides to pack up and move to San Francisco from their home in Minnesota, leading to a conflict between her emotions on how best to handle the situation. As she struggles to find herself in a new city, school and home, her first sad core memory develops, and inside the Headquarters that are her brain, the ensuing scuffle to fix this sends both Joy and Sadness out into the depths of her Long Term memory. As things go awry in Riley’s real-life, so to do things begin falling apart inside her head, memories begin turning blue as Sadness touches them, and the islands that define aspects of her personality begin to crumble. If Riley is ever going to be Riley again, Joy and Sadness need to find their way back and remind her who she really is.
Firstly, the film is filled with countless inside nods to how our brains work, but are simplified exquisitely for the young audience. The emotions themselves are representative, each a different colour, and charged with a different role. Whilst you could expect Fear or Disgust to be mainly negative emotions, they instead play a crucial role in keeping Riley safe. Outside of these portrayals however, there is also a stunning use of common ideas we often overlook. There is a literal ‘train of thought’, a brain freeze, the easy ability to confuse facts with opinion, Déjà vu, long-lost imaginary friends, a gated subconscious, the Dream Production Studios (which make features such as ‘I Can Fly’, and stars actors such as Rainbow Sparkle Unicorn), and Déjà vu. Whilst some of these aspects will surely go over children’s heads, the stuff that does sink in makes for an important educational tool.
To lighten the mood, sprinkled generously amongst the film and its gloomier moments is a humour that delights both old and young. We finally receive an understanding of why annoying commercial jingles play on repeat in our heads, by way of memory sifters who take pleasure in continuously throwing the recollection to headquarters. Or why we only ever remember ‘chopsticks’ out of four years of piano lessons. But better than that, we get an observant and hilarious look into the minds and emotions of other characters, such as Riley’s Mum and Dad. This happens by way of an elaborate scene placed almost half-way through the film which, arguably, is a point that makes the movie. When her mum asks her how her day has been, and she receives an unhappy response, she cues Riley's father to talk to her. Snap into Dad’s brain, and all his emotions are too busy reminiscing on a sport game, that he doesn’t quite grasp the question; “Is it Tuesday? Did we forget to put the bins out again? Oh no, did we put the toilet seat down?” The scene plays out as a gorgeous interaction of the varying ways people think, jumping back and forth between Mum, Dad and Riley’s brains, and utilising fantastic writing to make lines such as “was that sass?” and “the foot is down” so noteworthy.
Inside Out is a film rich in its expression and understanding of things. Down to the rather nuanced DNA-structured ladders used to reach the long term memories, and the synapse structure of the brain's headquarters, the film is constantly endeavouring to teach kids things without them realising it. For those that say the messages and education the film provides is too complex, and may go over the heads of the young intended audience, such critics are not giving enough credit to the subliminal and subconscious power our brains have, something the film impressively conveys.
Above all, Inside Out is Pixar returning to its best, reaching both children and adults alike with its wonderfully fashioned, thought-provoking, and utterly heart-wrenching tale. Whilst Pete Docter’s story and direction is a straightforward one, it is a surprise that the message and theme has not been tackled before. When depression and other changes in emotions are often disregarded or demeaned in conversation, it’s a refreshing change to see someone finally discussing them. Its triumph therefore lies in convincing kids that it’s not about trying to joyous all the time, but rather, how important it is to strike a balance. How, in the end, it is okay to have mixed emotions about life.
Rating: 4.5 emotions out of 5
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