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: “Pete’s Dragon”

Pete's Dragon movie poster

“That’s the thing about adventures: you’ve got to be brave.” So begins Disney’s latest outing, an overhaul of the 1977 partially animated film of the same name. This time out, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young boy orphaned at age five by what we’ll term “Bambi’s Unintentional Revenge”. He dashes off into the woods and immediately lands in danger–but he’s saved by a furry beastie he names “Elliot” after the “Elliot Gets Lost” storybook he was reading in the car at the time tragedy struck.

Fast forward six years, to the nearby logging town of Millhaven. There’s a legend about “The Millhaven Dragon”, kept alive by the tall tales of a local who claims he squared off against it–Meacham (amiably played by Robert Redford). Early on, he holds court over a pre-tween audience, cautioning them: “Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.” Of course, it’s easy to say that when you’re the one telling the stories.

Meacham (Redford)

Meacham (Redford), at home in the woods

The Millhaven Dragon, naturally, refers to Elliot–who has cared for Pete all this time. The now 11-year-old Pete is fairly feral and runs, jumps, dives off cliffs, and plays with Elliot with total abandon. It’s been six years of no responsibility and all play with his rather large and furry bestie. During a game of hide-and-seek Elliot shows off his ability to camouflage to the point where he seems to disappear, but it’s quite certain that he definitely exists. This friend is absolutely not imaginary.

Pete (Fegley) and Elliot

Boy meets dragon: Pete (Fegley) and Elliot

On a walk deep in the woods to track owls, Meacham’s daughter–Park Ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard)–stumbles upon Pete. With the help of some nearby loggers, including her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and his taciturn brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), Grace confronts the mysterious boy. Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) attempts to befriend Pete in the woods, but the confused boy–who later wakes in a hospital post-capture–is unsure of his surroundings and flees. Thus begins the triple chase theme that runs through the rest of the movie: Grace chasing Pete as the son she doesn’t have, Pete chasing his Elliot to regain his freedom, and Gavin chasing Elliot in search of fame and fortune. Even as Grace and Jack start to ponder the idea of Pete being more than just a transient playmate for Natalie, Pete’s eyes are always trained towards his home in the woods with his furry friend. Elliot never gives up hope that he may see Pete, but Gavin’s malicious advances endanger everyone, including Elliott, Pete, and the trio of Grace, Jack, and Natalie.

Grace (Howard), Pete (Fegley), Jack (Bentley), and Natalie (Laurence)

It’s a (pseudo) family affair: Grace (Howard), Pete (Fegley), Jack (Bentley), and Natalie (Laurence)

This movie does well at bringing Elliot to life, even if the concept of a furry dragon is still a bit confusing. He’s a playful, heroic figure who genuinely loves Pete from the first moment they meet–a boy’s best friend. Pete, touchingly animated by Fegley’s soulful eyes, is full of exuberance and an inner luminosity borne out of a carefree youth spent heavily as a dragon’s wingman. Laurence’s Natalie is endearing, the conscience of the film and the moral compass guiding those around her.

Natalie (Laurence) is introduced to Elliot by Pete (Fegley)

Girl Meets Dragon: Natalie (Laurence) is introduced to Elliot by Pete (Fegley)

Sadly, these three are really the only fully developed characters in the film. Redford’s Meacham serves the general role of “Elder Statesman With A Heart of Gold”, Howard’s Grace is “The Park Ranger With A Heart Of Gold”, Bentley’s Jack is “The Logger And Engaged Single Dad With A Heart Of Gold”, and Urban’s Gavin is “One-Dimensional Bad Guy Logger”. That’s not to say that they acquit themselves poorly; on the contrary, both Meacham and Grace are sweet characters that you want to root for time and again. Jack is there mostly to keep the scenery from flying away, but Bentley does as best as he can with a role that basically just locks him into “generic good guy” mode.

Jack (Bentley) and Gavin (Urban)

Logger bros Jack (Bentley) and Gavin (Urban)

Of all of the characters, I take exception only to Gavin; Karl Urban is given almost nothing from a script perspective. An accomplished actor who can play it straight (“The Two Towers” and “Return of the King”), he can also chew scenery with the best of them (“The Chronicles of Riddick” and any of the new “Star Trek” reboots). Instead, he’s relegated to a thinly drawn role–made an antagonist because the film needed one, not because there was particularly any need for his character to be an antagonist. His motivations are non-existent until he says them out loud, by which time you wonder, “Really? That’s where they’re going with this?”

Natalie (Laurence), Grace (Howard), and Jack (Bentley)

The family unit: Natalie (Laurence), Grace (Howard), and Jack (Bentley)

Is “Pete’s Dragon” okay for kids? Oh sure. There are a couple of scary scenes, including one with wolves at the beginning, but I wouldn’t hesitate to take my newly-minted seven-year-old to the movie with me. The computer graphics are okay enough–Elliot’s fur is rendered well, but the fuzzy dragon never looks like he’s as natural as his surroundings. On the other hand, the fur likely dials down the scare factor that might’ve been higher if he sported traditional dragon scales. Kids will love Elliot in all his fuzzy glory, and boys will long to run wild through the woods with so marvelous a companion. Girls will get a kick out of Natalie–the Hermione Granger of this film–strong, smart, and unafraid. And really, in a family-friendly movie like “Pete’s Dragon”, the adults aren’t the draw anyway, so positive images of the “kids” (of all shapes and sizes) is really all that matters.

2-1/2 out of 4 stars

“Pete’s Dragon” opens nationwide on August 12, 2016. This movie is rated PG for action, peril, and brief language.

Movie Review: “Captain America: CIVIL WAR”

Captain America: CIVIL WAR

The third installment of Captain America’s franchise is the darkest yet of the lot, a sprawling, globetrotting adventure that draws in a veritable kitchen sink of Marvel heroes. The story opens in 1991, with Cap’s friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) being thawed out and mnemonically pried open by a few choice words in Russian, setting him out on a quick mission to recover several packets of super-soldier serum and leave no witnesses. Fast-forward to present day, and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is casing out portions of Lagos, Nigeria, with the team assembled at the end of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) are there to help Cap take down Hydra baddie Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), who emerged from the wreckage of the former S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters as the enhanced and completely psychotic Crossbones.

While the team seems to have its game down, for the most part, a miscalculation by the Scarlet Witch ends up creating more than the usual amount of destruction and the unseen body count ticker starts running. Badly. Speaking of body counts, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is enjoying a bittersweet celebration at MIT, lauding the launch of his grant program to fund new technology, when he’s confronted by Miriam Sharpe (Alfre Woodard), the mother of a fatality from the Avengers’ battle in Sokovia. It’s a consistent theme for Stark–his past (or his father’s past) is constantly coming back to haunt him. Licking their emotional wounds, the team (including Paul Bettany’s Vision and Don Cheadle’s Lt. James Rhodes/War Machine) retreats to their compound in upstate New York, where U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) subjects the Avengers (sans a “retired” Hawkeye and the M.I.A. Thor and Hulk) to a dressing down, reminding them that they go in with the best of intentions but end up leaving without so much as picking up a broom and dustpan. If only they could clean up their messes so easily.


Captain America at Avengers HQ

Captain America (Chris Evans), facing ominous music


Ross explains that over 100 countries have come together to create the “Sokovia Accords”: an agreement that puts the Avengers under the management and oversight of a UN panel. The days of the Avengers’ autonomy are numbered, and they have precious little time to submit to the UN’s authority or face being shut down altogether. At this point, a rift begins to form between those on the team that are wary of the negative impact of the agreement and those willing to take that risk. The words spoken by the grieving Wakandan King T’Chaka (John Kani) following the Nigerian tragedy are obviously ringing in their ears: “Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all.”

Captain America, in his usual indifference to any authority other than his own, frets about the new oversight being “run by agendas, and agendas change”. Called away to attend the funeral of one of the few people about whom he intimately cares, Cap manages to connect briefly with the former Agent 13, Sharon Carter–yes, CARTER–played by Emily VanCamp. The reeling Cap then joins the Avengers in Vienna for the signing of an agreement he has no intention to autograph himself. The team’s division becomes crystal clear: Iron Man, War Machine, Vision, and Black Widow all signed, but Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Falcon have refused. The divide widens as an explosion rips apart the UN compound, killing King T’Chaka and leaving evidence that points to Bucky as the culprit. There’s enough set up with the shadowy Zemo (Daniel Brühl) to suggest that perhaps Bucky’s not 100% in control of his own decisions.


Tony Stark and Steve Rogers

Bromance on the rocks: Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Evans)


The second act focuses primarily on Captain America’s hunt for Bucky and the lengths to which he will go to protect his friends from just about everything–except himself. In one of the few cases where Cap puts the individual in front of the team, Rogers is willing to sacrifice it all to save his long-lost best friend. Of course, Bucky is more than just lost; he’s a ticking time bomb. The half of the team that forms behind Stark settles on the idea that Bucky needs to be put behind bars and anyone who stands in their way is a criminal. Rogers rebuffs Stark’s renewed offer to sign on the dotted line for the Sokovia Accords, and the counter-team forms up behind the Captain and his shield.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a kitchen sink approach without adding even MORE superheroes into the mix. Team Iron Man adds Black Panther (the Wakandan heir–now King T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman) and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland); Team Cap adds Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and a not-truly-retired Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). What follows is a messy brawl where neither side really, truly wants to hurt the other. More like, they all just want to stop the other team from getting their way without inflicting too much damage. Unfortunately, this is the Avengers, and if there’s one message we’ve learned from prior movies (and the high-tech PowerPoint Ross put on earlier), it’s that things will get out of hand quickly. The injuries, both emotional and physical, take their toll, with Cap and Bucky barely escaping to chase after Zemo.


Partial view of TeamCap

A partial view of Team Cap: Hawkeye (Renner), Scarlet Witch (Olsen), Captain America (Evans), and Bucky (Stan)


It’s impossible to go into much detail on the third act without spilling spoilers left, right, and center, so suffice to say that the action continues apace. Cap and Bucky are a comfortable pairing–both are damaged goods, men out of time who’ve seen and done things they wish had gone differently. Stark is a man haunted by the ghosts he will never shake, and he’ll swing at anything that will make the pain go away.

This movie is very much a Captain America film–a slower burn with plenty of action and character development. On the other hand, it also tries really hard to make sure that no one feels left out, which only seems overdone when it comes to Ant-Man and Spider-Man. Black Panther fits in well as a superhero who has no real need for a team (and will suffer an alliance), but Ant-Man and Spider-Man seem there for only two things: 1) comic relief, and 2) setups for 2018’s “Ant-Man and The Wasp” and Disney’s reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, respectively. The subtler sarcasm of Falcon and Hawkeye fits well with the vibe of the movie, but the slapstick and neophyte humor of the insect and arachnid just don’t work nearly as well.


TeamIronMan: Black Panther, Vision, Iron Man, Black Widow, and War Machine

Team Iron Man: Black Panther (Boseman), Vision (Bettany), Iron Man (Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Johansson), and War Machine (Cheadle)


Even so, this is a great film and a worthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe–dramatic, action-filled, and intense. Everyone is bringing as much A-game as they can, and the team leads (Evans and Downey Jr.) are just outstanding. Each plays their role with a genuine approach that shows these two actors really understand how to play tortured souls.

When it’s not heart-stopping, it’s heart-wrenching; “Captain America: CIVIL WAR” isn’t just about the chasms that form between friends when they sit on opposite sides of an issue, it’s also about the internal struggles that people face when they have to make tough choices that have real and painful consequences.

Is “Captain America: CIVIL WAR” for kids? Well, not really. I’d probably peg this as for ages 10-and-up, but if the child has already seen and ably managed “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, they’ll do fine here. The screening I attended was in IMAX 3D and the fight scenes were somewhat hard to follow due to the format’s poor handling of incredibly fast movement. I recommend aiming for 2D or regular 3D for this one unless there’s an absolute preference for IMAX 3D. As per usual, there are two extra post-credit scenes for this movie–one immediately following the initial set of cast credits and one at the very end of the full credit roll. In other words: stick around until the screen is completely unlit.

3-1/2 out of 4 stars

“Captain America: CIVIL WAR” opens nationwide on May 6, 2016. This movie is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence, action, and mayhem.