Moana Review

Last year Inside Out blew everyone away with its stunning effects and inventive premise. Then The Good Dinosaur came out in the second half of 2015 and did not live up to the high standards set before it. This year, Zootropolis wowed the audience and received praise for its narrative and story elements. Now Moana is stepping into the void left by The Good Dinosaur. Does it fail like last time, or does it continue a good year for Disney?

Moana stars Auli’i Cravahlo, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Rachael House and Temuera Morrison and is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. The film follows Moana (Cravahlo), a chieftains daughter, who must set off across the ocean to find demigod Maui (Johnson) and help recover the “heart of the sea”.

The animation and design, like all Disney films is superb. The film is set on a chain of Polynesian islands, with Moana and Maui sailing between them. the islands look superb, with the water being a highlight. I know it sounds odd to praise the water, but it’s one of the hardest things to animate and here it’s almost photorealistic. Polynesian culture has been heavily researched and is used throughout the film, with artwork, tattoos and traditional dances in almost every frame. It’s a setting that’s underused in films (it has only small similarities to Lilo and Stich) and it looks beautiful.

Moana as a Disney “princess” is also quite a developed character. Voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravahlo (say it how you spell it), she breaks the mould for women in the Disney pantheon, despite rehashing elements of Mulan’s and Pocahontas’ character. Moana’s not the omni-competent badass of Brave or the ditzy, naïve damsel of Tangled. She makes mistakes, learns from people around her and eventually saves the day, with not a prince figure ever gracing the screen to marry her and whisk her off into the sunset. She’s not even a princess, which the film comments upon with a series of meta-jokes. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson does his usual thing as Maui, a demigod who Moana must enlist to help her quest. He’s oafish and workshy, wanting to just rest on his title of demigod rather than do anything heroic. His body is covered in tattoos, some of which come alive and argue with him throughout the film. They soon become a reoccurring sight gag as they run from one side of his body to the other, trying to keep his attention.

The music is a mixed bag. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i (the former of Hamilton fame), some songs are absolute belters while others are forgettable or boring. Moana’s main theme is an excellent powerful ballad in the same vein as “Just Around The Riverbend” or “Let it Go”. It may not reach the huge popularity of Frozen‘s hit wonder, but you will definitely hear it in the coming months. The two final songs are quiet and emotional, and give a nice change after the Broadway-style of the others. The rest are not going to be classics in my opinion, with the worst involving a cringe-worthy song by a giant crab. All the songs continue the Polynesian feel, with chanting, pipes and drums backing up the powerful voices, and is a refreshing change from Disney’s usual musical tastes.

The only real fault I can find with Moana is the script. The story is a standard Disney adventure, but the interactions between the characters aren’t up to par. With lines like, “I will tell you my story, in song format,” it seems that the script needed to go through a few more rewrites before filming started. Plot points arrive quick and are dismissed even quicker, sometimes just for a one-off joke. Most of it seems a bit rushed.

In the end, Moana is a middle of the road offering. The animation, characters and (half of) the music are well worth the trip to the cinema, but a weak story and script don’t make it any better than passable.

Score: 6/10 Flourishes of brilliance with some minor faults.

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Finding Dory Review

Oh for goodness sake, let the sequels end! “But this is different,” I hear you say, “it’s Disney/Pixar”. And yes, before they became the super-media conglomerate that eats up every single other piece of entertainment, Disney and it’s younger creator Pixar crafted some excellent contained movies. Which they are now soiling with unnecessary add-ons like Cars 2 and Monsters University (admit it, you completely forgot they made Monsters University). But let’s dive in (pun intended) once again for Finding Dory.

Finding Dory stars Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence and Ed O’Neill and is directed by Andrew Stanton. The film follows on one year after the events of Finding Nemo, when Dory (DeGeneres) remembers her parents, she sets off to find them, with Marlin (Brooks) and Nemo (Rolence) in tow.

While I was on-board for the sequel, the story is rather boring. In Finding Nemo, Marlin was unsure of how to reach Nemo, and that’s what made the story exciting. In the sequel, we are pointed to exactly where Dory’s parents are at the beginning of the film, so it just gets tiresome after the fourth or fifth time Dory goes in the wrong direction. Even in a 90 minute film, this feels like extraordinary padding. To the end of the film I was really getting angry at the drudging story, but then during the final twenty minutes, the film pays off for one beautiful scene, before heading back to trudging boredom for the finale. And sure, it’s nice to go back to these characters, but there aren’t many memorable new ones. But stick around until the very end credits and you may see some familiar faces.

The film is a lot lighter on jokes than previous Pixar films, and most of the good ones were shown during the trailers. The majority come from the duo of Dominic West and Idris Elba as a pair of “geezer” sea lions (who were shown, but only one moment), who switch from stretching out in the sun to barking at trivial things. They are one of the funniest things in the film but are only in the film at the very beginning and at the very end.

Since the whole film is set at an aquarium, you would think that you would get some lovely shots of thousands of fish swimming around the giant tanks. Sadly not so. We may get one or two fleeting glimpses of shots similar to the school run at the start of Nemo, but most of Finding Dory is set in bland white corridors and darkened storage facilities. With Pixar being one of the biggest animation houses, I would really want for something a bit more stimulating than nondescript buildings.

Maybe Pixar spent the entire budget on the short film before, called Piper. It’s another animal based story, of a small bird learning how to hunt for food in the sea. It’s almost photo-realistic, like a nature documentary, but with some silly human qualities added to the birds to make them more relatable I guess.

But I can’t deny, the music is what pushes the film along. Thomas Newman returns once again, and basically does the same thing he did for Nemo. It’s sad when the best thing about the new film is something that was perfected back in 2003, but it’s great to hear Newman’s signature style in a cinema sound system.

To finish, Finding Dory was just like every other sequel this year, really, REALLY not needed. And Dory continues the trend of Pixar properties of having a really good first film and a quite boring second attempt (Toy Story being the only exception). I would say let’s learn from our mistakes, but heck, we’re all going to go watch Incredibles 2 aren’t we?

Score: 5/10 Fleeting moments of greatness, let down by a wilting story.

The Jungle Book Review

With Cinderella last year and Beauty and the Beast next year, it seems Disney is set on remaking their well-known animated classics into live-action. I along with many others, were sceptical if those stories would work through the change. But Cinderella proved me wrong, so now I’m pretty excited about the new films. The newest film to be adapted is the 1967 The Jungle Book. Does the film still work at nearly 50 years old?

The Jungle Book stars Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o and newcomer Neel Sethi and is directed by Jon Favreau. Based on the books by Rudyard Kipling, the film follows young child Mowgli (Sethi) as he has to leave the jungle for fear that tiger Shere Khan (Elba) will kill him.

First off, the animation is superb. While I talked about the attention to detail in Disney’s earlier Zootropolis, it was mainly cartoon versions of animals. Here it’s more like a nature documentary. The animals of the jungle howl and roar and they stalk their prey through the forest with an amazing sense of realism. The environments help. They look photo-realistic and the CGI creations merge with the live-action sections of the film.

The cast is what makes it though. Several strong voices, each giving a top performance. They are so many more than the ones I’ve listed already, Scarlett Johansson (as the now female Kaa, who isn’t in it as long as the original), Christopher Walken as King Louis and Giancarlo Esposito as Akela. Even original Spiderman director Sam Raimi gets a small cameo. It’s a great list and it gets you invested in the film. You don’t care that animals are talking, because they sell the hell out of it. I wasn’t too impressed with Neel Sethi as Mowgli, (he’s better than most child actors, but that isn’t saying much) but seeing as it’s his first film I feel like going easy on him.

The film obviously has to tip it’s hat to the original 1967 version, but it’s in these moments that it lost me. Sure the songs are what have kept the film a well-loved classic for so long, but they feel out of place here. Christopher Walken’s rendition is laughably awful (while adding new lyrics) and Murray and Sethi’s version of Bare Necessities doesn’t have anything on the original. It works a lot better when it deviates from the first film. Kaa’s new version of hypnosis is clever update of the 60s psychedelic wavy lines, and the new design King Louis, as a 12-foot gigantopithecus (a now extinct type of ape) is a sight to behold; he’s no longer the swinging and jiving jazz singer we knew. Hands down, the build up and reveal of the Ape King, as well as the following action scene around his palace is one of the best scenes in the film and will become a standout of Disney’s catalogue. And no, there are no vultures bearing similarities to a certain Liverpool band in this version.

The film as moved from a U rating to a PG. I guess it comes with the territory, with the more life-like creatures and with fighting being a major theme of the story, The Jungle Book is skewing to a much more darker sense. The violence is mostly off-screen or is hidden, but the tone is less child-friendly than the 1967 version. The man-hating Shere Khan (who Idris Elba gives a great sense of menace) has an evil presence over the film, as well as the entire King Louis section, it has a much more intense feel than the original. If you are worried whether you kid will be scared by the prospect of a realistic tiger jumping at them, have a look at the trailer. The trailer does a good job of setting the general tone of the film. If you think that they can deal with it then go for it. Just be prepared for angry tigers and panthers jumping at the camera.

Score: 9/10 A great adaptation and remake that changes the feel for the better.

Zootropolis Review

After the runaway hit of Frozen back in 2013 and their collaboration with Pixar on last year’s smash Inside Out, it was going to be a big ask for Disney to top themselves in 2016. Their new film, Zootropolis is out this week, so how does it compare to what some people are considering to be the best in Disney’s line-up?

Zootropolis stars Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba and JK Simmons and is directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore. Zootropolis (also known as Zootopia in other places) follows Judy Hopps (Goodwin), the first rabbit police officer to be hired in the city of Zootropolis. She has to team up with the fox con-artist Nic Wilder (Bateman) to solve a missing mammal’s case.

The film has a great cast, with the previously mentioned Idris Elba and JK Simmons, but also has great actors and comedians in the smaller roles. Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate and Tommy Chong are good actors, and a small role for Shakira as a singing gazelle, but the standouts are Goodwin and Bateman. The main duo have a great chemistry as Hopps and Wilder and bounce off each other well in the downtime between them.

As usual with Disney films, the animation is one of the film’s strong points. All of the characters in the film are mammals, and while they are not photo-realistic, the attention to detail is superb. You can make out the individual hairs of Hopps and Wilder (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a previous Disney fox) and each animal’s animation structure makes it a joy just to watch them move around the film’s sets.

The city of Zootropolis is nicely designed, even though we don’t get to see a lot of it. It calls to mind Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, with high skyscrapers and bridges connecting them all together. The city is split between different climates; the arctic tundra, the desert and the rainforest. Throughout the film we travel to the different sections of the city and just like the animation, it all looks grand.

The jokes are good, but I feel that Zootropolis might be found to be boring by its younger audience. I was in a packed theatre, filled with both kids and adults, but on average the adults were laughing more than the kids. The slapstick was enough to set the kids laughing, but these were few and far between. Of course, with Disney you get your adult aimed jokes; we get a spectacular Godfather spoof with a possum who looks like a rodent version of Marlon Brando, a sly dig at Frozen‘s inescapable hit song (now I’ve reminded you of it, it’s going to be in your head for a while) and a Breaking Bad reference (complete with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman), but every time I found myself thinking, “kids won’t get this reference”.

Come to think of it, I think it might only be the anthropomorphic animals that make it kids based. Zootropolis has PG rating for “mild threat” and even at points it made me jump. Several big predators turn “savage” and start attacking other smaller animals, clawing them and leaving them with scars, and even nearly killing some. I know that Disney is seen as a kids company, but it’s great when they go dark and they definitely go further out than they have before in Zootropolis.

Just like previous Disney films, Zootropolis takes an overarching theme and litters the film with subtext. I won’t spoil the main points but the film would be a treat to analyse; feminism, transgender themes, immigration and race are all explored within the film. Disney likes to touch upon topical subjects and transposes them to an animated feature for it to be easily taken in by an audience and just like the older Disney films, Zootropolis will make you think long and hard on its themes after you leave the cinema.

In the end, Zootropolis is good. It isn’t on an Inside Out level of greatness and it might bore the younger viewers, but it does stand up on its own as a good film.

Score: 8/10 A solid Disney entry. Just be wary of taking viewers who might be too young for it.

Big Hero 6 Review

Despite being part of The Walt Disney Company for just about half a decade, this is the first time (that I can recall at least) Disney has set about creating a feature film using Marvel characters in Disney’s visual style. And, as usual Disney has knocked it right out of the park.

Big Hero 6 is based on the Marvel comic of the same name, but after doing some research it seems that the adaptation is as loose as….well, other superhero films (although those will be getting closer to original source material now that Disney has the rights to the major characters.). The story in BH6 is about a young boy called Hiro, voiced by Ryan Potter, who at age fourteen is already constructing small robots that would rival the stuff being built by scientists who spend their entire lives dedicated to the craft. After a terrible accident (no spoilers in here) Hiro finds himself in possession of a robot called Baymax, voiced by Scott Adsit, a machine designed specifically for nursing. But when Hiro finds clues that connect both the aforementioned accident to a science project that he was previously working on which is now being used by a super-villain, Hiro sets of with a War Machine-esque Baymax and a collection of diverse nerds-turned-superhero friends to stop the bad guy.

But even with a set up as basic as it gets (Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne anyone?) Disney gets to give us one of what will be a year of great films. The big action set pieces are given their part to play in the film (brilliant as they are) but it’s the dialogue-heavy parts of the story that give the story some weight, with a confused Baymax trying to help an emotionally distraught Hiro because it’s in his programming to not stop until the patient in his care is back to their usual self. The film doesn’t shy away from the two big M’s in storytelling either, morality and mortality, with the former being an integral part of the end of the first major action set piece.

The supporting cast are characterised well, even if they do not have as much screen time as our two leads. Comedians Damon Wayans Jr. and TJ Miller fill out supporting roles Of Wasabi and Fred respectively, with the latter being a superhero geek with a room full of superhero memorabilia. Disney once again nails the balance of humorous and annoyance (see Olaf from Frozen) with these two, without either dropping into Jar Jar Binks levels of irritation. These two characters, along with Genesis Rodriquez’s manic science girl Honey Lemon, offer the films consistent laughs, however as with many jokes in Disney films, a fair few will be going over the younger viewer’s heads and straight for the adults accompanying them, with an extended “drunk” sequence involving Baymax being a highlight of the film.

Even with these well defined characters, the stand out secondary of the film is Jamie Chung’s GoGo, a woman of few words apart from the occasional cry of “Woman Up!” is essentially a Disney-fied version of Chung’s Miho in Sin City 2. The real meat of the film though is Hiro and Baymax, whose conversations and interactions feel like a blossoming friendship, with conversations taking place in the latter part of the film nearly reducing me to tears.

My only complaint with the film is its length. Unlike the slow-moving Baymax, the film hurtles towards the conclusion of the story like a freight train, leaving me, while thoroughly entertained, feeling like I had missed out on what could have been some brilliant additional scenes. I wanted to see the cast use their superpowers more, I wanted to see the gang working at school, as well as more of the city called San Fransokyo, a depiction of San Francisco by way of Japan. Hopefully Disney will add these in two the definitive sequel, but it would have been nice to see them here.

As with all Disney films, this one comes with its own short film, titled Feast, which is about a human romance from the view of a pet dog, who is obsessed with food. This little film joins other gems such as Paper Man and The Blue Umbrella in being a sweet story that you’ll want to watch again. And as with all Marvel films, this one comes with a cameo of Stan Lee himself, which veteran Marvel viewers will get a kick out of.

In conclusion, Big Hero 6 is well worth your time. Whether you are a child, teenager or accompanying adult, there is a range of jokes and story points that will resonate with people on every level.

Score: 9/10, A solid Disney superhero film, who’s only fault is not lasting long enough.