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Moana (2016)

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 3/7/2017

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Review by Sydny Long, Posted on 3/2/2017

Disney has always been a trendsetter. From animating well-known fairytales to crafting uniquely spunky princesses to headline their fantasy flicks, animation as it is today begins and ends with Disney. Most notable, however, is how far the Disney formula has carried the company and how many studios now attempt to either emulate this magical combination or satirize it with snide remarks towards the grandiose musical numbers and doll-eyed princesses. Conceived by Howard Ashman (with some assistance from Alan Menken, who continues to contribute songs to Disney), the Disney formula began with The Little Mermaid, which elevated the company to critical and financial acclaim, and initiated the Disney Renaissance. Every movie in the Renaissance and in the recent revival era (beginning with either The Princess and the Frog or Tangled, depending on your opinion of whether the Disney revival of the 2010's is only its CGI releases) contains the same basic elements: fantasy or fairy tale origins, a bright-eyed heroine, an endearing animal sidekick, and lots of catchy songs. There are a few exceptions (The Lion King is nothing but animal sidekicks and Zootopia is a rather mature buddy cop flick), but this formula has survived the changing times and continues to put Disney on a pedestal. With Moana, Disney tries to gently mock its own formula while still sticking faithfully to it. Can it soar on this combination? Or is this movie left dead in the water?

Moana opens with the titular character as a young toddler, learning from her eccentric grandmother Tala (Rachel House) about how a demi-god stole the heart of Te-Fiti, which generates life, and how one day the ocean will choose someone to restore the heart. It seems that the ocean has chosen Moana, but her father and tribe leader Tui (Temuera Morrison) forbids people to venture beyond the reef and is especially strict with Moana. At sixteen, Moana (Auli'i Cravahlo) is prepared to take on her role as future chief and forget about the ocean until her island starts dying and her grandmother reveals they were once voyagers. She gives Moana the heart of Te-Fiti and one of the boats their ancestors used to sail, allowing Moana to finally venture past the reef to restore the heart. Along the way, Moana finds the demi-god who stole the heart--Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a hook-wielding, smug braggadocio--and forces him to help her track down Te-Fiti. The two travel across the ocean, facing tiny coconut pirates, a treasure-obsessed crustacean, and lots of internal conflict as Moana struggles to find her identity and Maui strives to recover his past glory.

As much as Moana tries to subvert the Disney formula (Maui labels Moana a princess even though she's actually a chief, her cute animal sidekick keeps almost drowning), it is incredibly faithful to the blueprint. Moana herself is a suitably spunky, quirky protagonist, bursting with aspirations that her father doesn't approve of and providing delightfully sarcastic comebacks. Her ocean powers are somewhat reminiscent of Elsa's ice powers from Frozen, but instead of being a limiting factor in her life, the ocean enables Moana to complete her journey and help her realize who she is. This fantastical element, in addition to the rich tapestry of Polynesian culture and legends, elevates the film and provides it with that touch of whimsy necessary to keep the formula from feeling stale.

Formulaic sensibilities aside, Moana is a colorful, enchanting film that refreshes the princess role and has endless fun with its litany of villains and sidekicks. Even though Maui's character design can be a touch off-putting (the centrality of his facial features is slightly grotesque), Dwayne Johnson brings a hilarious smarminess to the role and Maui's living tattoos are a clever spin on Polynesian tradition. The repartee between him and Moana is always sharp, keeping the ocean-traveling scenes from feeling tiresome. And the minor villains in this film are absolutely wonderful. From the tiny coconut pirates to Jermaine Clement as a conceited crab who belts a catchy number about his treasure, their characters make the journey that much more interesting and serve as stepping stones towards the final battle between Moana and Te-Fiti (which has a touching moral about the importance of understanding and compassion).

Moana is bursting at the seams with concepts, music, and imagery, which distract from duller moments and clunky dialogue (as always, there are some jokes that fail to land). The moment Lin-Manuel Miranda became attached to the project, it became obvious that this movie was going to be chockfull of earworms and Miranda doesn't disappoint. While the songs are lifted straight from the formula (the princess's "I want" song, the villain's song, the song in a foreign language that you can't help but belt out anyway), they are buoyant and infectiously catchy. The animation here is equally stunning, from the movement of each of Moana's curls to the glitter of the ocean to the final showdown. Whenever the story fails to capture the attention, there is always a beautiful landscape or bouncy musical number to distract until the plot picks back up.

While perhaps not as show-stopping as, say, Beauty and the Beast, Moana is definitely a wonderful entry into the Disney canon and even superior to the global hit Frozen in some aspects. It showcases the Polynesian culture in a positive light (although Lilo and Stitch was probably a more realistic depiction of true island life), offers beautiful visuals and songs, and presents a sweet heroine who succeeds because of her compassion and determination. Come for the tried-and-true Disney formula (which, in a refreshing change of pace, doesn't kill off the parents of the protagonist.

Moana hits the beach on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image is incredibly sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look fantastic, as the movie mixes bold greens and blues with lighter tones, and the image is never overly dark or bright. The depth, even in this 2D version, is impressive. The level of detail is noteworthy, as we can see the work which went into creating textures on objects. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 5.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. We are treated to a very creative mix here, as the sounds of the ocean fill the stereo and surround channels, while the crashing waves provide notable, but not overpowering, subwoofer effects. The film's songs sound great, and individual instruments can be picked up in the front channels. This set also includes a Blu-ray 3D where we find the film letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an MVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30/12 Mbps. The first thing that you notice here is that the colors don't suffer and they retain their brilliance. The depth is good and there are certainly moments where the characters are nicely separate from the backgrounds. The movie does contain a good number of very wide shots where Moana's boat is on the ocean -- while these look fine, they don't communicate the sort of depth seen in the closer shots.

The Moana Blu-ray Disc contains several extra features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Directors John Musker and Ron Clements. "Inner Workings" (6 minutes), the short film which accompanied Moana in theaters is available here. (It's also on the Blu-ray 3D and can be viewed in 3D.) We also get a new short entitled "'Gone Fishing" (2 minutes) which features more hijinx from Maui. "Voice of the Islands" (31 minutes) is a mini-documentary which shows how Musker and Clements visited various Pacific islands to do research for the film. This contains a great deal of footage from their trip. "Things You Didn't Know About..." (4 minutes) shows various members of the cast and creative team being asked random questions. "Island Fashion" (5 minutes) is an interview with Neysa Bove who developed the costuming for the film. "The Elements Of..." (14 minutes) examines the development and animation of four specific parts of the film. "They Know the Way: Making the Music of Moana" (13 minutes) profiles Composers Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa'i as they discuss the film's score and songs. We also get to see them working in the studio. This is followed by Miranda talking about "Warrior Face", a song which was cut from the film (4 minutes). "Fishing for Easter Eggs" (3 minutes), shows some hidden secrets in the film, most of which you'd never spot on your own. The Disc contains seven DELETED SCENES which run about 26 minutes when viewed with the introductions by Musker and Clements. None of these are fully animated. Most are presented in a rough animation style, while others are more like storyboards. We get the MUSIC VIDEO for the song "How Far I'll Go" performed by Alessia Cara, which is followed by "'How Far I'll Go' Around the World" (3 minutes) which gives us examples of the song in various languages.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long