onsdag 22 februari 2017

Moana/Vaiana: Nice, but the new formula's getting old

Usually, I have no problem producing opinions enough about an animated Disney film to fill a post or two. But with Moana - marketed in most of Europe as Vaiana, for copyright reasons apparently - I find myself struggling a bit. (It's a name, how can you copyright it? Wouldn't whoever owns the rights be thrilled over the extra free advertisement? Don't tell me the Italian, er, entertainment profile actually had anything to do with this decision? Anyway...) I didn't dislike it by any means: it has an engaging heroine, a likeable, flawed hero, some hummable tunes and, towards the end especially, a touching moment or two. However, for once when watching an animated Disney film in a cinema I found my attention wandering. I actually spent some of the time thinking about possible storylines for Frozen 2 - a subject for another time - because Frozen this film ain't.

For one thing, it takes a goodish while to get started. The plot hurdle which prevents Vaiana - I'll be a good little European and call her that, since they went through the trouble of making an English version of the film where she's called Vaiana throughout (seriously) - from leaving her home island right away to find her destiny just feels contrived. Not until she gets away at last and finally runs into the vain demigod Maui on a desert island did the film gain interest for my part. Sweet as Vaiana is, she is your usual, plucky Disney heroine who is in fact far braver and more resourceful than her male counterpart etc.; it's nothing we haven't seen before. Maui is funnier - his musical number "You're welcome" was the best one in my book  - and a more rounded character. In fact, I found him far more likeable than Kristoff in Frozen, and I thought it a pity that there was no romance forthcoming between the protagonists.

But this is now a standard ingredient in the new Disney formula. It started with Merida in Pixar's Brave, which wasn't even that big a hit. Then Frozen happened, and love-interest-free Elsa got spectacularly popular. Someone at Disney must clearly have thought: "Hey, maybe she's so popular because she doesn't have a love interest? She's a strong, independent female character who doesn't waste time with lovey-dovey stuff... This is clearly the way forward." Now, I don't think Elsa's lack of love life had much to do with her popularity - it was more down to her interesting story arc and a great song - but, nevertheless, the animated Disney films since Frozen have been remarkably devoid of romance. True, many of the old Disney prince/princess pairings were beyond bland (aren't Disney princes the most colossal waste of space? With the exception, perhaps, of one...). But there have been many sweet romances too - think of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Tangled, for instance. I really miss the romance ingredient, and I can't see why Disney heroines shouldn't be able to be strong and independent and have some love as well.

Another thing the new Disney formula has all but done away with is the centre-stage villain. For a few years now, Disney films have had plot twists relating to the villain side of things, and it's true that when done well these twists give you some pleasingly jaw-dropping moments. By now, though, I would welcome the recurrence of a villain in the Scar or Jafar mould - obvious, yes, but brainy, suave and full of sarky (ideally British-accented) villain banter. We're sort of onto surprise villain reveals by this time, anyway - I can't say I fell off the sofa by the twist in Big Hero 6, for instance. Vaiana does have one obvious, almost-centre stage villain in the giant crab Tamatoa, but he's... well, he's a crab. His villain song Shiny has its moments - I like the part where he suddenly gets really mean and personal in his attack on Maui - but it's not memorable in the same way as, say, Scar's Be Prepared or Doctor Facilier's Friends on the Other Side. When I remember the first-class bad guys Disney has been able to produce in the past, I really can't get too excited about a boastful, singing crab, though to his credit he does at least relish his own villainy.

Yes, I imagine that Frozen's success was helped by the fact that the Disney formula had some new, fresh ingredients. But if you use them over and over, then they won't feel as fresh anymore. If you ask me, there's nothing wrong with adding some more traditional but spicy ingredients in the form of a romance or a charismatic, attention-grabbing villain. Next time, could we please have them back?