Movie Review: “Moana”


Just when we all REALLY needed a distraction, Disney brings forth “Moana”, a tale of girl power wrapped up in Polynesian mythos and catchy tunes. “Moana” is a solid successor to the title held by “Frozen”, not just because surely there’s the potential to sell ALL the licensed items but also because the story doesn’t revolve around the standard Disney trope of needed a prince to solve the heroine’s problems.

“Moana” opens on the gentle and stunning island of Motunui, with Gramma Tala (Rachel House) telling an enraptured preschool-level audience the story of how the demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) stole a stone from Te Fiti (the goddess who created the mother island), kicking off a chain reaction that threatens to drain the life from all of the islands in the ocean. A young Moana (played for the bulk of the movie by Auli’i Cravalho) is drawn to the ocean, and the ocean itself encourages this, enticing her out into the lagoon and revealing from an early age the quest she is being asked to complete.


Gramma Tala (House) and Moana (Cravalho)

Gramma Tala (House) and Moana (Cravalho)


Fast forward a few years, and Moana is growing into a lovely girl whose dreams of the open water are constantly squelched by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). Gramma Tala helps show Moana her destiny as a great sailor, and she explains why the people of the island abandoned their wayfaring days for the quiet, sublime, and settled life on Motunui.

As one would expect, when there’s a quest, it can’t be denied, and Moana eventually heads out to find Maui and restore the stone to its rightful place in Te Fiti’s heart. It wouldn’t be a Disney movie without some measure of gag relief, so Heihei (Alan Tudyk) to the rescue–a stowaway chicken who clearly loves Moana and doesn’t have a brain cell to spare otherwise. From this point on, the movie goes along pretty much as one would expect of a hero myth–challenges, danger, cunning, and strategy all factor heavily in the heroine’s success, and while she doesn’t ever act alone the voyage is as much about her own self-discovery as it is about bringing vitality back to the islands crippled by the stone’s absence.


Moana (Cravalho) and Maui (Johnson)

Moana (Cravalho) and Maui (Johnson)


“Moana” is an unusual movie for Disney, in that they don’t tend to cover a lot of mythology so outright (“Hercules” being an exception), and this movie draws heavily from and is inspired by a mixture of creation and trickster stories. Maui’s description of his exploits, such as “pulling up the islands”, is actually a feature of many stories about Maui across the various cultures that celebrate him. Employing a Polynesian cast was a culturally competent move, and it’s clear that Lin Manuel-Miranda (“Hamilton”) and the other song-writers benefited from their research on the islands as they prepared their work.

At a high level, Moana is a model of a self-rescuing princess–a welcome paradigm shift from the 20th century versions–and Maui is a standard trickster with a heart of gold. Heihei…well, he’s an example of how Disney will ruthlessly use Alan Tudyk for their films in the same manner as John Ratzenberger has been employed for their Pixar movies: any way they can and always to the audience’s delight. The cast is stellar–Cravalho acquits herself well as she displays the passionate and desperately capable Moana, Johnson clearly relishes his role as both babyface a heel (and displays some really good singing chops in the impossible-to-ignore “You’re Welcome”), and House is the consummate awesome grandmother we all wish we had. A key villain–the monster crab Tomatoa (Jemaine Clement)–chews scenery almost as much as he’d like to chew on the protagonists.

The songs are catchy, with Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” positioned as this year’s “Let it Go”, although Maui’s “You’re Welcome” is the one that will stick in your head for DAYS. (Trust me on this one; I’m speaking from experience.) From a graphics perspective, I didn’t see any new ground being broken, but the visuals are attractive and have a good balance of realism and cartoonishness. Is it worth seeing Moana in 3D? The screening I attended was in 3D, so I can say that it’s not a bad thing to see it that way–although it’s unclear that the 3D was something really eye-popping until you get to the end-credits.

And then there’s the perennial question that pops up when a movie aimed at the family is rated PG: Is “Moana” too scary for my kids? There were definitely a few moments during the movie which I would figure the ratings folks could describe as “brief but intense scenes of peril”. Moana and those around her get into some serious scrapes with bad situations, and some of them–such as the Realm of Monsters, where you meet Tomatoa–could warrant snuggling up close to the littler ones in your party. I’d say it’s fine for 10+, but those under the age of 10 may need a hand to hold at various points. The music, the visuals, and the overall story are worth making this a movie for the whole family, though, and that’s something worth crowing about.


Inner Workings


Note: come early and stay late! “Moana” is preceded by a delightful short film, “Inner Workings”, which (in any right-thinking world) should be short-listed for the 2017 Academy Awards. It’s a dialogue-free adult version of “Inside/Out”, just with a more organic spin. (You’ll see what I mean.) Also, there IS a post-credits scene for “Moana”, so stick around until the lights are all the way up.


4 stars out of 4

“Moana” opens nationwide on November 23, 2016. This movie is rated PG for peril, some scary images, and mild thematic elements.

Movie Review: “Eddie the Eagle”

Eddie the Eagle

Inspired by the story of that most amateur of Olympians, Michael “Eddie” Edwards, “Eddie the Eagle” is the kind of feel-good dramedy that comes along every few years to remind us that even the Everyman can have his day. Much in the spirit of underdog films like 1993’s “Rudy”, “Eddie the Eagle” tells the story of a never-will-be who has his moment in the spotlight.

The eponymous lead character is played by the distinctly more chiseled Taron Egerton (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”), who mimics the original’s goggle-glass squinting, resting underbite-driven grimace-face, and happy-go-lucky attitude without making Edwards a complete caricature. As it is, it seems almost too good to be true that Edwards managed to make the impossible happen–to be the first Olympic ski jumper from England in nearly 60 years. He came from seemingly nowhere, a mildly accomplished skier who didn’t qualify for the 1984 Olympics and spent his off-slope time following in his father’s footsteps as a plasterer.

From an early age, Edwards ignores the misgivings and discouragement from those around him; much like the 22-year-old self portrayed by Egerton, a 6-year-old Edwards simply collects his things and heads for the bus station to go to compete once he sets his mind to it. His tradesman father (Keith Allen of “Trainspotting”) believes all these dreams nothing but folly and continually urges Edwards to focus on his plastering and build a career. Edwards’ mother (Jo Hartley of “This is England”) is one of the few people who consistently supports him (and, oddly enough, it’s really only three women in “Eddie the Eagle” who encourage him; the males are anywhere from ambivalent to downright hostile and bullying).

When he’s rejected by the British Olympic Ski Team as unsuitable (whether due to demeanor, lack of experience, or general class issues), Edwards is ready to hang up his skis until he realizes that ski jumping could offer him another avenue. With no other Brit poised to represent in that event for the 1988 Games, Edwards decides to move to Germany to train with some of the best in the sport. It’s there that he meets his primary on-screen foil, a boozy jerk of a slopes manager who turns out to be Bronson Peary, a fallen-from-grace former Olympian (“X-Men” alumnus Hugh Jackman, sporting an American accent). Edwards pursues Peary with the persistence of a love-struck teenager, hoping experienced guidance will far outstrip self-training. Where Edwards has limited ability and unparalleled tenacity around reaching his goal of competing at the Olympics, Peary has talent without discipline–although he’s awfully attached to his “jacket” (a flask of liquor sporting a faded American flag). It becomes clear that Peary let down not only the coach-to-end-all-coaches, Warren Sharp (a muted Christopher Walken), he let himself down.

Edwards’ mix of fascination and panic when trying progressively longer jumps shows that he isn’t completely without his wits, but he is fairly oblivious to the obvious danger posed by his über-novice status. This is evident as he describes ski jumping as “still skiing…just a bit higher.” Peary (who apparently is not intended to be representative of either/both of the real Edwards’ coaches from his training in Lake Placid, NY) sees Edwards as a fool: sixteen years too late to start training and completely out of his depth. Edwards is often the butt of jokes by his fellow jumpers, particularly the Norwegian team helmed by Bjørn (Rune Temte, the menacing Ubba of “The Last Kingdom”). Once Edwards finally breaks down Peary’s resistance and gains him as a coach, his effort begins in earnest. Of course, there are setbacks–including a spectacularly brutal wipe-out. Ski jumping, as they so often point out to Edwards, is for the brave and crazy, and he’s warned that the 90m jump would be more likely to land him in a coffin than on the winners’ podium.

For those of us who watched Edwards in the Olympics nearly 30 years ago, this story is somewhat familiar, and Edwards tends to trigger either amusement or resentment. Some of this is visible in the movie, where crowds in Calgary warm to his enthusiasm following landing an important jump–but where “Eddie the Eagle” fails to deliver is in truly laying bare how much backlash he faced. According to the real Edwards’ own accounts, he received threatening letters from fellow athletes who felt he made a mockery of the sport by taking the Olympic stage without paying years of dues in blood, sweat, and training. While you do see Edwards face some hazing and pranking, it’s not at a level where he seems to be thrown off by any real measure. Egerton’s Edwards brushes most of it off–if he registers it at all–not really processing the massive amounts of shade thrown in his direction by nearly everybody in his life. As close as you see him feel the weight of dismissal comes in one tear-filled phone call with his parents and a separate conversation with Peary where he protests: “I was kicked off every team I was on before I got a chance to prove myself.”

When it comes to deciding whether “Eddie the Eagle” is okay for kids, I’d probably say that it’s fine for many. The majority of the violence is limited to the types of jump wipeouts that comprised the “Agony of Defeat” in the old ABC Sports intros, and the sexual innuendo is represented primary by a clumsily dodged come-on attempt aimed at Edwards and a “When Harry Met Sally” deli-style moment for Jackman’s Peary. You’ll never look at a jump again without thinking of Bo Derek.

Overall, the message of “Eddie the Eagle” is that sometimes grit and determination are enough to reach life goals, although Edwards never expected to win gold. He wanted the chance to compete, and his very presence and ability to make it onto the scoreboard without crashing out was a miracle of sorts. The movie has a vibe that’s distinctly afterschool special, but it sports some impressive scenery and able acting on all counts–especially by Egerton. “Eddie the Eagle” is certainly one to watch for some inspirational viewing. It’s not 100% faithful to the story leading up to the Olympics, in terms of locations and people, but actual Olympic footage makes it into the film and the scenes of Calgary are based on what happened for the real Edwards. The synth-heavy soundtrack is pure-80’s, and a training montage set to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” is derivative in the most delightful way (at least for those of us that are FGtH fans).

Three out of four stars.

“Eddie the Eagle” flies into theatres on Friday, February 26, 2016. It is rated PG-13 for some suggestive material, partial nudity, and smoking.

Movie Review: “He Named Me Malala”

He Named Me Malala

“It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for 100 years.” The soft, high-pitched voice of Malala Yousafzai opens the documentary of her extraordinary life so far, “He Named Me Malala”. At age 15, Malala was shot by Talibani fighters who wanted to silence her message of empowerment for girls. There’s no way these men could have envisioned how much power she would wield in the aftermath.

Her father, Zaiuddin–an educator and activist, encouraged her to speak her mind. When she was approached to ghostwrite a BBC blog about life under Taliban rule, she knew that she was putting herself in danger. Still, she struggled against the prohibitions and restrictions of the Talibs (as she referred to them), so the blogging provided her a necessary outlet for venting her frustration by exposing what was going on in her town, which is situated about 100 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan, in the Swat Valley.


Zaiuddin and Malala

Zaiuddin and Malala


Malala admits that were her father a more traditional man, things would have been different. “If I had an ordinary father,” she explains, “I would have two children by now.” Bear in mind that Malala is only 18 years old. Her father’s influence is inescapable, as they are seen cuddling, chatting–even, amusingly, navigating Zaiuddin’s first tweet.

From the beginning of her life, Zaiuddin was there to set her on a path to be out front. He named her for a martyred female fighter because he expected her to be an activist. When she was born, Zaiuddin sat down with the family tree and pondered the complete lack of any women’s names on the page. He then added the name of the girl who would become his eldest child: Malala. Her mother, Toor Pekai, had attended school when she was younger, but she dropped out early when she realized she was the only girl. Settling into their exile in Birmingham, England, Toor Pekai seems to have the greatest difficulty adjusting to the new life, although even Malala admits that it’s hard to fit in among the English girls. Her voice is tinged with sadness as she describes that she doesn’t fit in, but she can’t go home. Perhaps that’s the lot in life for someone so remarkable.


Malala explains where she grew up

Malala explains where she grew up


Zaiuddin addresses the attempt on her life by saying, when asked who shot her, “It is not a person–it is an ideology.” Her very existence is a nose thumb to the idea that girls (and women) are somehow lesser. The Nobel Prize she won at 17 is further testament to that. At one point, when considering the importance of speaking out, Zaiuddin explains, “If I don’t speak, I would be the most sinful and guilty person in this world.” It’s clear his ethos is carried well forward in his daughter.

It would be easy to reduce Malala to a living doll, a cardboard cutout that gets trotted out whenever there needs to be representation of a girl who survived adversity and challenges antiquated notions of women’s roles in society. When Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of young girls in Nigeria, Malala was asked to come and intervene. “I’m still 17. I’m still a teenager. What can I do to help?” she wondered. Her very presence inspires confidence that things can be different.


Atal and Malala Yousafzai

Atal and Malala


Even so, she’s still a teenager and a human being. Good portions of the movie are devoted to showing her clowning around with her brothers (who give as good as they get when it comes to snark and sarcasm). She searches online for pictures of Brad Pitt and Roger Federer. She’s a sweet young lady who has the poise of a woman easily twice her age.

Interspersed throughout the movie, as the story moves through the details of the attempted assassination, her subsequent rehabilitation, and the seemingly non-stop world tour that followed, animations are woven throughout to illustrate more vividly the experiences that shaped her existence. In drawings reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis”, you see the story of the Malala for whom she was named, as well as the dejection of Toor Pekai at the point when she abandoned her own schooling.

At times brutal in its honesty, “He Named Me Malala” is a breathtaking salute to a young woman who has defied every odd set against her. It creates context for those who haven’t heard the breadth and depth of her story, and it is–at times–unrelenting. You see Malala with her family, enjoying moments as any family might, but it is impossible to escape the knowledge that the self-imposed exile is all that saves her from the Taliban finishing the job they started a few years ago.

An author and Nobel laureate before 18 years old, Malala has a story worth hearing. One can only hope that this is just the first chapter in a long, long series.


4 out of 4 stars

“He Named Me Malala” opens nationwide on October 9, 2015. This movie is rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats.