Thanksgiving Blockbusters: New on Old

moana

The defining moment of Moana, Disney’s latest animated release, comes around one hour in. At that point, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho, in a strong debut), the daughter of the chief of her Pacific Island tribe, has already sailed out from home on a journey to bring back good harvests to her community. She’s battled through the elements to secure the aid of Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a narcissistic demigod with a ton of magical powers. And he, in a fit of cringeworthy male chauvinism, decides to start making fun of her. In response, Moana makes one thing clear: yes, she’s the daughter of the chief of her tribe, poised to pick up the reins upon his death. But no, she states emphatically: that does *not* make her a “princess,” a.k.a. another incarnation of weak-willed, fragile femininity à la Jasmine, Belle, and Cinderella.

In the moment, the exchange comes across as forced and a tad semantic. Still, the fact it’s there speaks to how this latest Disney release seems to follow tried-and-true tropes but also makes sure to give them a few special twists. Moana is independent and rebellious, but she does everything out of a sincere desire to help her people, a step up from the immature impulsiveness that guided Brave’s Merida, Frozen’s Elsa, and Tangled’s Rapunzel. She sings the requisite number about her troubles fitting in, but far from being melancholic like Mulan in “Reflection,” her musical monologue is buoyant and cheerful, a sign of a person searching for the chance to do her duty on her own terms, tradition be damned. And when she does suffer from bouts of self-doubt, they usually come from insecurity over whether she really has what it takes to save her community, an anxiety far greater in consequence than most of the things plaguing the average Disney protagonist.

This rather compelling presentation of Moana and her decision to take to the sea takes up much of the first part of the movie. In the second half, on the other hand, we start off with an introduction to Maui and the idea that he does heroic things out of an incessant desire to win affection he never got as a child. As if to highlight the bind in his existence, in the middle of a battle with a giant singing crab, there’s a telling shot of Maui gazing forlornly at his magical hook, which remains out of his reach at the top of the crab’s shell – an image of a man never able to completely obtain or shun the glory such a weapon can provide. Yet despite these fleeting initial moments of thoughtfulness, too much of the second part eventually ends up centering on either drawn-out rounds of repartee or abrupt, contrived moments of conflict eerily reminiscent of the angsty, “You’re not my friend anymore!” outbursts of grumpy teenagers. Add the lack of any really interesting villains – said singing crab and a big lava monster don’t cut it – and it all eventually crumbles down into a finale that, however sweeping, relies on a lot of hand-waving to reach a predictably happy resolution.

From this mediocrity, however, the movie redeems itself with two big draws. First, water plays an outsize role in this movie, both as a literal barrier around Moana’s community and an embodiment of both the wonder and danger of the unknown. With that in mind, the animators do an amazing job making the water into what looks, feels, and behaves like a gigantic, constantly shifting living organism. In addition, some of the shots of Moana out at sea remind you of films like Life of Pi with the beautiful way they capture the lonely resilience guiding her quest for survival.

Most importantly, however, the music in this movie rocks. Put together the talents of Mark Mancina, the man behind the soundtrack of Tarzan, and Broadway all-star Lin-Manuel Miranda, and you’ve got songs and a score that are going to stick in your head in a good way. (Side note: Miranda’s chances of EGOT-ing this year are looking fairly decent.) They contain just the right amount of energy and exotic-ness to make you forget it’s December and believe you really are sailing with Moana beneath the blazing Pacific sun. The strength of Disney’s animated canon has always depended less on Pixar-esque story development than on the catchy flavor of its musical numbers, and in that regard, Moana is a definitive win. Like a certain winter movie some people still can’t let go of, it’ll probably be kicking around for a while.

***

The other big movie of the Thanksgiving season, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has a huge initial hurdle to clear. By now, the Harry Potter universe has inserted itself so thoroughly into mainstream culture that it’s hard to imagine what would be gained from tweaking it further. You can’t help but wonder whether the idea for the new five-film franchise Fantastic Beasts purports to be the start of arose out of a sincere interest in exploring new parts of the Harry Potter world or a more base desire to milk dough off of unsuspecting diehards.

With this in mind, Fantastic Beasts tries really hard to reassure us it’s here for a good reason. It has the occasional nostalgic reference to HP, but it spends most of its energy introducing us to a whole new galaxy of ideas, places, and characters. We’re no longer in 1990s England but 1920s New York. Instead of Daniel Radcliffe walking around with a scar on his forehead, we get Eddie Redmayne as the introverted Newt Scamander, a young zoologist who was previously expelled from Hogwarts. Upon his arrival in America, he runs into a creepy anti-witching cult, crosses paths with a bumbling Muggle (or, as American wizards put it, “No-Maj”) baker, and accidentally releases a suitcase full of Nifflers, Bowtucklers, and scores of super-wacky creatures that would make Hagrid weep tears of joy. Pressing on Scamander in the background, meanwhile, are the so-called “Magical Congress of the United States,” an extremely harsh Statute of Secrecy forbidding the slightest interaction between wizards and non-wizards, and a mysterious “dark spirit” wreaking havoc in the city. And if that’s not enough, don’t forget that Gellert Grindelwald, only the most dangerous dark wizard of all time (save Voldemort), is also on the run from the authorities.

fantastic-beasts

In some ways, Rowling’s decision to take us away from the spires of Hogwarts bears fruit. For one, Redmayne turns in a good performance; he fully embodies the ins and outs of his nerdy, socially inept character. The adventures he embarks on, moreover, explore ideas and themes only hinted at in the more action-oriented original franchise. The often harsh applications of the Statute of Secrecy and the occasional reference to Grindelwald’s Nazi-esque ideology both speak to the evils of discrimination and inequality. The doings inside the anti-witching cult contain many readily apparent allusions to both historical backlashes against “heresy” – McCarthyism, the Inquisition, you name it – and the debilitating effects of being forced to repress one’s true self. There’s even a scene where Newt and his companion barely escape from being put to death by the Magical Congress, a not-so-subtle reference to America’s relationship with the death penalty. (Britain abolished it when Rowling was only three months old, after all.)

In the end, however, the fact remains that Rowling was at her strongest working within the ordered world of Hogwarts. Deathly Hallows the book showed how easily she loses focus when Hogwarts isn’t there to hold all the parts of her plot together; in a similar fashion, the sheer number of new things Fantastic Beasts introduces turns out to be its undoing. The darker parts of the film, which occasionally look like they came right out of one of those “creepy little girl” horror movies, make for a jarring, unpalatable contrast with the long comedic sequences devoted to depicting the Muggle baker’s various magical and non-magical woes. In between these extremes, Rowling also wastes a lot of time with unnecessarily protracted meet-and-greets with every creature the wonders of CGI managed to bring to “life” from the pageHer inability to systematize all these disparate parts unfortunately means that the final product ends up being little more than a confusing hodgepodge of disconnected events. And the half-baked action scenes at the end aren’t enough to make us forget we meandered through two hours to get there.

In a sense, the real problem is that Rowling is simply a better novelist than screenwriter. The original Harry Potter films were entertaining largely because we’d read the books and thus had enough imagination to fill in everything the movies left out for the sake of runtime. Here, Rowling is trying to recreate the engrossing magical atmosphere of old. But without Potter, Ron, and Hermione, we don’t come with the same motivation to root for the characters on screen, and Rowling’s attempts to make us care usually work through hasty bits of dialogue that serve as lame, awkward stabs at exposition. The resultant lack of depth to any of the characters – Newt, his sidekicks, the main villain, Grindelwald – makes you wish you had a real Time-Turner to go back to the days of Alan Rickman and Severus Snape. Perhaps the sight of Eddie Redmayne doing a funky mating dance will be just enough to hold you through one viewing of all this. But when you leave, you’ll probably be hoping that Rowling goes back to putting pen to paper – well away from the allure of the silver screen.


Thanksgiving 2016: Moana Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Starring: Auli’i Cravalho

Dwayne Johnson

Eddie Redmayne

Katherine Waterston

Colin Farrell

Johnny Depp

Running Time: 113 minutes 133 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG PG-13
Produced by: John Lasseter

Osnat Shurer

David Heyman

Steve Kloves

J.K. Rowling

Lionel Wigram

Directed by: Ron Clements

John Musker

David Yates
Written by: Jared Bush J.K. Rowling
Adaptation? N/A (Loosely) based on Rowling’s 2001 book of the same name.