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: “Tomorrowland”


“This is a story about the future, and the future can be scary” — the somewhat ominous first words from John Francis “Frank” Walker (George Clooney), at the opening of Brad Bird’s latest opus. Rather than bringing us straight to the shiny future teased in the movie’s trailers, “Tomorrowland” truly begins with a visit to the past, 1964 to be exact, and the World’s Fair in New York. Young Frank (Thomas Robinson) makes his appearance at a booth for the vetting of inventions, and when a taciturn Nix (Hugh Laurie) seems to find every reason to turn down Frank’s only-barely-not-working jet pack, a sweet young pixie named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) chases him down and coyly offers him a second chance to impress with his technology.

Athena hands Frank a pin with a “T” on it and orders him to follow her from a safe distance, while she then dashes ahead to the “It’s a Small World” ride (which actually debuted at the real-life 1964 Fair). Frank manages to scamper onto one of the boats and the pin ensures that he’s spirited away to a world straight out of every futuristic drawing ever produced (or perhaps from the pen of the designer of London’s Shard), where his jet pack manages to save his life almost immediately upon arrival. Frank and Athena are soon reunited and, as much as Nix dourly regards Frank, he’s unable to deny that Frank has some techno skills.


Young Frank and Athena at the World's Fair

The younger Frank (Thomas Robinson) talking about his jet pack with Athena (Raffey Cassidy)


Skip now to present day, where Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is trying to sabotage the demolition of a NASA launch platform at Cape Canaveral to stave off a future that puts her engineer father out of work. “It’s hard to have ideas…and easy to give up,” she says. Given how the rest of the movie goes, I’m inclined to agree with her. Over the course of the two hour and ten minute-long film, Casey goes on your standard hero quest through space and time–to the point where I started to wonder if Bird himself gave up and just dropped scenes and concepts from “Back to the Future II”, “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”, “Contact”, and “The Lorax” into the largest blender he could find.


Casey in the wheat field

Casey (Britt Robertson) seemingly transported to a field wheat


A strangely un-aged Athena plants a pin on Casey, who soon discovers that it has the power to show her a transformed world with the lovely dichotomy of a super-futuristic city surrounded by fields of completely untended wheat. As it happens, the pin is merely an ad; it shows Casey the visuals but none of it is real. When the time runs out on the hallucination (or very intricate hologram), she finds she’s mostly waded into a swamp. One quick internet search later, she finds a place that may have answers about the vision from the pin: a nerdtopia of a store called “Blast from the Past”, run by Ursula (Kathryn Hahn) and Hugo (Keegan-Michael Key).

It’s once you get to “Blast from the Past” that “Tomorrowland” veers firmly off the “OK for Small Kids” path, when a variety of killbots sporting hyper-bleached toothy grins begin the first of several lengthy appearances, blowing up things left, right and center, and placing Casey firmly in danger. Athena helps save the teenaged heroine, aiding her escape and setting her on the path to meeting up with Frank, at which point the strange story takes turns both predictable and disappointing.


Frank and Casey in Frank's house

Older Frank (George Clooney) and Casey (Britt Robertson) having one of many arguments


The pairing of Casey and Frank goes well enough, but at this point the story itself becomes too much of an unoriginal hot mess to match with some of Bird’s earlier work (such as “The Incredibles”, which is Bird and Pixar both firing on all cylinders). As much as Frank initially resists Casey’s pleas for help to get to the city of the pin’s visions, he soon wholeheartedly jumps into her quest and all too slowly reveals why it is that he no longer resides in the utopia she glimpsed. The remaining threads of the story then pull together in a manner well-telegraphed to those paying attention.

On the plus side, the casting was fairly well done. Robertson is plucky and adorable (sort of a Jennifer Lawrence-lite), and Clooney plays “get off my lawn” rather well for someone who started out his career as a heart-throb. Cassidy plays Athena just right, and the combination of Key and Hahn needs to get its own TV show (or she needs to be a regular on “Key and Peele”). The visuals of the shiny city with multilevel pools and flying everything are gorgeous, although occasionally the green screening doesn’t quite work as well as it should.

Where “Tomorrowland” falls below expectations is in how often it spends too much time wallowing in misery over discarded gadgets and people, showing the myriad ways one can disable a grinning killbot, and lecturing everyone on how little we appreciate everything around us. Meanwhile, it gives short shrift to the future promised by the eponymous “land”, in particular leaving a whole piece of what’s happening in that city completely unexplained, and the writers maddeningly deny Laurie’s Nix the opportunity to chew all the scenery within reach. Talk about not appreciating something right in front of you.

As far as the question of whether “Tomorrowland” is okay to watch with kids, I’d recommend it for children 8 years or older. Below that age, some of the violent scenes may be too disturbing. It’s actually somewhat difficult to tell which age range is the target for “Tomorrowland”, since portions of it are fairly kid-oriented but the action scenes are really too much for the smaller set. Perhaps all that jumping around between the past, present, and “future” has “Tomorrowland” just as confused as the rest of us.


2-1/2 out of 4 stars

“Tomorrowland” opens nationwide on May 22, 2015. This movie is rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action and peril, thematic elements, and language.


How to make your kiddo’s first movie enjoyable for everyone (within reason)

Recently, a friend of mine who has a 4yo son asked me if I’d written something about how to decide when it’s okay to take your kiddo to their first movie, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t yet covered that (although I do talk about the kid-freak-out-potential in my movie reviews). In the spirit of fairness, I figured I’d write up a longer version of what I discussed with him, since this was something that I was worried about when my kids wanted to start going to movies.

Let me preface this by saying that I love going to the movies. Seriously, I adore it. There’s something about going to this magical building where you can be transported away to some other time and place through sound and images. It’s a link with culture and the arts, it’s escapism, and it’s stories brought to life by people with incredible talent (both in front of and behind the camera). The first real opportunity dd had to attend a movie was when she was 4-1/2yo and one of her friends invited her to a birthday party at the local movie theater, to see “Hop”. Not being a tremendous fan of Russell Brand, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I dutifully took her to the theater. When other parents did the “drop-off” thing (leaving their kiddos in the care of the parent[s] in charge of a party), I stuck around and bought a ticket for myself so that I could be there for her. It’s not that what those other parents did was wrong and what I did was right, but I wasn’t sure that bringing my daughter to her first immersive movie experience and then leaving her there would’ve been the wisest move I could make.

Turns out I was quite right. During the previews (the PREVIEWS!), she had a freak-out at the violence in the trailer for a “Kung-fu Panda” movie. Having been raised primarily on The Wiggles and PBS Kids shows to that point, she didn’t see violence. Ever. And even cartoonish violence can cause massive panic. I don’t recall if I offered her my lap or if she just cuddled up with me, but she was fine by the time the feature came on. There were moments where she snuggled up close, not because “Hop” has any especially scary parts but more because – at age 4-1/2 – she just wasn’t able to process all of this information without it overloading her to some extent.

By the time ds was ready to hit the theaters, it became more apparent that the “cuddle up” message had to be made and reinforced – early and often. The “cuddle up” rule for movie-going in our family is that if something on screen causes someone to get scared, they need to “cuddle up” with the nearest parent. If I take the kids on my own, then they each get an arm (it’s only fair). For the most part, ds has been fine; he hasn’t yet needed to see an entire feature on my lap, but he did get very upset when Constantine brandished a gun at the end of “Muppets: Most Wanted”, and there were tears. Since then, he’s asked for scare-level information about each movie we’re considering, so he can decide whether he wants to see it or not. Contrast this with some girlfriends whose similarly-aged kids have seen “Marvel’s The Avengers”; not every kid hits the panic button about violence, and some of it may just go away on its own. Each kiddo is different.

We’ve been to several movies with the kids (as a complete family and one parent + one or two kiddos), so at this point I feel like we have it down fairly well. With that in mind, here are five suggestions for those who are considering taking their young child to their first movie and would actually like the experience not to suck to be a good one for everyone involved:


1. Make sure your kiddo can get through a whole movie at home first.

If they can’t get through a whole movie at home, then attention span may be an issue. All you need is your kiddo to get bored in the theater and you’ll both be climbing the walls. Between previews and a feature, a movie experience may run 1-1/2 to 2 hours for a beginner movie; if your kiddo is unable to sit still and pay attention for that long a time, then heading out to the theater may not be the right move yet.


2. Check the ratings and reviews before heading to the theater.

I consider this the “Cars 2 Rule”. One exceptionally hot day, following an tent concert by The Wiggles that nearly made both of us melt, I took dd to “Cars 2” as a way to cool off. I made that spur-of-the-moment decision not knowing that “Cars 2” was rated PG. When the movie started out with a shootout, I realized I’d taken her to the WRONG FILM. I trusted that the “Cars” label meant “kid-friendly” and didn’t expect that it was really “kid-friendly at a certain age”. The new Planes: Fire and Rescue is also PG, so buyer beware.


3. Consider nap and meal schedules.

This one should be a gimme: if your kiddo is used to naps at the time when you want to go to the movie, consider the likelihood of a meltdown and plan accordingly. Similarly, check to see what your local theater offers for food if you’re going near a meal time. Nicer, newer theaters will often have anything from hot dogs and pizza to chicken nuggets and fries. Not every kid will eat well when you’re in a theater (sensory overload), but it may be easier to aim for a movie at lunchtime and head home for nap than to go to a mid-afternoon movie that may not exist. (Movie theaters just don’t consider nap schedules well enough when setting movie times!)


4. Use the bathroom right before the previews come on.

It doesn’t matter whether your little one is potty trained or still in diapers; odds are, if you don’t check right before the movie starts, you’ll end up missing part of the movie for time in the bathroom. That old adage of “Always go before you go” is still great advice.


5. Reinforce “the cuddle rule” right before the feature comes on.

Make sure that your kiddo knows that they should cuddle up if they get scared and that you’re there for them. Even if they don’t take you up on it, knowing that the offer is open (and reminding them to the point of having them repeat it) removes one potential source of stress for them. That way, if they do get worried or scared, they immediately start clinging and you both know that’s the signal that you need to “protect” them.


Additional things worth considering:

  • Sitting on the aisle, in case you need to make a speedy getaway (either a bathroom run or just a run for somewhere that wailing is acceptable)
  • Finding baby/kid-friendly movie showings, often a special program run by certain chains (such as Showcase), that have lower sound volume and slightly brighter overhead lighting
  • Getting the booster from the customer service desk can make it easier for kids too small (light and/or short) to see properly from their seat; the alternate is typically that YOU become the booster seat (which you may or may not like)


When all else fails, try just renting something from Redbox or grabbing a movie off OnDemand/Netflix/Amazon Prime, popping some popcorn and springing for $1 boxes of movie theater candy at the local drug store. Really, there’s nothing to stop you from having a “movie viewing” at your house that mimics the experience well enough – but at a price tag and with amenities – that are a little more everyone’s speed.