Things I Thought About While Watching ‘Moana’

moana

It’s hard to think about anything else but the glum future of the United States of America after the total clusterfuck that was this election. I do understand that every movie that gets released for the next four years will be analyzed in terms of “what it says about Trump’s America”, and I do expect such analyses to get really old really quickly. But there is something fascinating about the deep sense of bittersweetness I experienced while watching Moana, Walt Disney Animation’s latest production. It’s a movie designed as an empowering tool for little girls everywhere that has inadvertently become a lament for all that could have been, and all that we progressive and liberal people fear will be lost in the face of this terrible election.

First of all, the movie takes place in a mythological version of the South Pacific. A beautiful region of the world that looks legitimately gorgeous in the movie. People who read this blog know I am not the biggest fan of computer generated animation, but this movie looks beautiful (which is a big plus when compared to Disney movies as recent as Frozen, which is a movie I really like, but quite frankly doesn’t look very good). It is, at the same time, particularly heartbreaking to look at all this Pacific Island beauty and realize that the real-life equivalent (which is equally if not even more breathtakingly gorgeous) faces a very real danger of being swallowed up by rising ocean levels as a result of human-influenced climate change. Thank God the U.S. just elected a President who doesn’t believe such a threat exists.

Seeing young Moana go on an epic quest to reverse the curse that is destroying her island paradise made me think of the hundreds of South Pacific people who blocked an Australian port to protest rising tides. The young heroine’s quest gained a level of sorrow in my mind as soon as I saw the beauty of the environment the animators created, and it only grew bigger as the movie developed its themes. See, the basic idea of the movie is that Moana’s people used to be travelers who explored the sea looking for new islands in which to settle. As the movie opens, Moana’s tribe has grown afraid of the dangers of the sea and they’ve closed off of all sorts of exploration. They have turned inward and forgotten that they used to be, essentially, immigrants. Sounds like any particular group of people to you?

Not to get too political, but the more I think about the movie, the more parallels I find to current events. There is, of course, the fact that Moana is groomed from the day she is born to become a rightful and trusted leader for her people, and that she fights long and hard to do what is best for them while challenging the views of her relatively close-minded father. Moana is fueled by responsibility, her father by fear. Of course, Moana triumphs at the end, unlike another woman leader who worked her whole life in public office and tried to become a great leader but was defeated by an experienced old man who largely fueled his supporters with fear. Listen, you might think I’m exaggerating with these parallels, but a key line repeated in the movie insists Moana remember “who she really is”, which made me immediately think of the phrase “this is not who we are”, which so many people used in order to fight against the xenophobic and divisive views that bubbles up during this election season.

I will stop with the parallels now. All I’m trying to say is that it was quite difficult for me to enjoy Moana for what it was and take the current political situation out of my brain. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it made have tinged my viewing experience in a way I wasn’t prepared for, but at the same time, it made me think of the young girls who will watch Moana and find in the central character a source of motivation. To also work hard to be the best person they can be, to become leaders, and to be ready to go in long and hard personal journeys in order to do what is best for the people that they love and the land they share with them.

While we’re on the topic, Moana herself strikes me as a particularly strong protagonist worth of serious unmitigated praise. It is yet another revisionist attempt on Disney’s part to fight against the more regressive aspects of their whole “Princess” brand (Moana even says “I’m not a princess” at some point in the movie), but one that really works. Two key factors help this point tremendously. First, Moana is a smart girl, who like I’ve said a hundred times now, works hard for what she wants to accomplish. Second, her quest is not a selfish one. I love The Little Mermaid (which was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind Moana), but Ariel’s quest is essentially a selfish one. It’s about doing things for herself and to make herself feel good. That’s a valid quest in itself, but I find it particularly endearing that Moana is doing something not necessarily for herself (there is an element of self-fulfillment of course because this is a Hollywood film after all), but to provide a better future for her people and become a righteous leader.

All of this is accomplished without giving her a love interest or defaulting to a stronger male character. Yes, there is Maui (the demigod voiced wonderfully by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), who becomes an escort and sort of mentor for the girl, but by the end of the movie Moana and Maui are equals, stronger when they work together than when they are apart, and it’s Moana who drives the plot and must convince Maui to keep going when it seems like all is lost.

In terms of the movie itself, not everything is as tightly plotted and carefully executed as say, Tangled, which remains the best of the recent string of computer animated Disney movies. The songs (co-written by most popular person in the world and awards-magnet Lin-Manuel Miranda) are mostly just ok. “How Far I’ll Go” is the standout, and probably the best “I Want” song Disney has put on film since “Part of That World”. But then you have Jemaine Clement giving a hilarious voice performance as a giant crab who is saddled with a nothing of a song when hearing his clever line readings would’ve been more rewarding. The other songs are merely ok.

That being said Moana is still a really good movie, and one that I would be completely happy to see little girls all around the world obsess over. This “not a princess” could prove to be a great role model. Here’s hoping she inspires a generation of future leaders.

Grade: 8 out of 10

 

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Thoughts on Some Movies I’ve Seen

the-handmaiden

Haven’t had much time to write reviews lately, but I guess it’s time to catch up with some of the movies I’ve been watching…

handmaiden-posterThe Handmaiden

This is the newest film by director Park Chan-wook, who is most remembered for his violent and twisty film Oldboy, and is returning to his native Korea after his first American movie Stokerdidn’t quite meet expectations (although it’s still a very good movie if you ask me). The Handmaiden is an adaptation of the British novel Fingersmith, but transposes the plot from Victorian England to the Japanese-occupied Korea of the nineteen thirties. It’s the story of a young pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) who, collaborating with a con artist, poses as a handmaiden to Japanese heiress Lady Hadeko (Kim Min-hee). The plan is to fool the heiress into marrying the con artist (who is posing as a Japanese Count), throw her in the loony bin, and steal all her money. What nobody is expecting is that the handmaiden and her mistress are going to fall in love.

If you are familiar with the work of Park Chan-wook, you will have a pretty good idea of what to expect. There are twists and turns, moments of extreme violence, a couple of explicit and steamy sex scenes, and yes, there is also an octopus. What you might not expect is for Park to deliver a robust and deeply heroic love story between the two women. Park’s stylistic flourishes (and there are plenty) reveal themselves to be in service of a deeply feminist movie, culminating in a delightfully triumphant and subversive last scene. It is also one of the most entertaining and engaging movies of the year, an absolute (and twisted) delight.

9 out of 10

moonlight-posterMoonlight

Since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight has been received with nothing but raves, including a declaration as “best movie of the year” by no less a prestigious publication than the New York Times. It is only in the context of this rapturous reception that my opinion that the movie is merely really good and not quite the greatest thing to have hit cinema screens in twelve months could be considered negative. I offer this preamble because I feel a little lost in a vacuum when it comes to this movie. Not because I can’t see what others find to be magnificent about the movie, but because it’s been hard to find people who are willing to talk about and work through my reservations about the film. So I apologize if my thoughts don’t seem all that coherent.

The film is a triptych about the coming-of-age and sexual awakening of a young, poor, black man named Chiron. Each chapter focuses respectively on key moments in his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. For telling the story of a type of person who is rarely -if ever- seen on the big screen (let alone in a movie this celebrated), Moonlight deserves serious kudos. But even understanding how this fact makes the movie so unique, I still felt like the first two sequences were at moments revelatory and at moments disappointingly familiar. Even though there are many moments of surprising, complex, and rewardingly specific observations, they are often undercut by the movie’s insistence on making Chiron’s world as overwhelmingly oppressive as possible. Settling for perfectly fine archetypes and motifs can be disappointing when you are also getting tastes of an even richer movie waiting in the sidelines.

Who am I to judge? I’ve never been a gay black male growing up in the South, and perhaps the movie does a wonderful job of portraying the feeling of being trapped in a world that has no room for your deepest desires. On the other hand, I can say that the third act of the movie -in which we met a grown-up Chiron, who is truly a character that I have never seen on screen before, and is impeccably portrayed by Trevante Rhodes- overflows of the kind of specificity and depth that was only sometimes present in the previous two acts. This segment, which focuses basically on two men talking to each other, is so delicate, so beautiful, so well observed… Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to admire in those first two act, but the movie’s last third is on a whole other level.

7 out of 10

doctor-strange-posterDoctor Strange 

Despite the controversy, the biggest draw this movie had for me was Tilda Swinton playing some sort of mystical kung fu master. Otherwise, I was not interested in watching another Marvel movie. At all. Well, I’ll be damned, because Doctor Strange is a very enjoyable movie. Some of your regular Marvel problems prevail: the villains are as lame as can be, the female characters are grossly underserved, and Benedict Cumberbatch is transparently  (and annoyingly) being groomed to take over Robert Downey Jr.’s slot as the witty asshole of the group once he finally gets tired of putting on the Iron Man suit. But at the same time, Doctor Strange excels where many other Marvel properties have simply failed.

First of all, the movie looks really good. Thanks to moody and shadowy photography that serves as a much needed palate cleanser from the over-lit warehouses where Marvel movies usually take place. Second, and this is very important, the movie puts its visual effects to great use. You see, Doctor Strange is a sorcerer, and thus, we are spared the usual spaceships and explosions in favor of mind-bending action sequences like the one that takes Inception‘s idea of a city folding onto itself to a truly crazy extreme. These are the most visually inventive action sequences Marvel has done since the underrated battle at the end of Thor: The Dark World (give or take the bathtub scene in Ant-Man). Despite its dour promotional materials, the movie is surprisingly humorous. It’s probably the most consistently funny movie in the Marvel canon since Iron Man 3 Those are a lot of “best since blank” in a row, which means it’s probably time I end this review. Doctor Strange. It’s good.

7 out of 10