We are getting quite used to strong animated female leads, and Disney’s latest hum-along entitled Moana – the name of the heroine in it – is no exception. She is headstrong, smart, courageous, adventurous and naturally, pretty. What makes her and her adventure more intriguing is the mythology surrounding the tale that anyone can enjoy, with songs that are emotive and toe-tappingly catchy, rather than pure schmaltz.
A terrible curse is triggered after a greedy Demigod called Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) steals a precious stone, causing all islands in the region to slowly perish. When the curse finally reaches Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho), an impetuous Chieftain’s daughter’s island, she answers the ocean’s call to seek out Maui and put things right.
Moana is a blaze of colour and a cool refreshing summer breeze on a chilly December day, with exotic island settings and characters that entertain all age groups. It also has enough subtle jokes for adults, rather than overkill of tedious ‘nudge, nudge, wink, winks’ that have to be explained in the darkness of a cinema as to why mummy or daddy is in a fit of giggles when something clearly unfunny has happened to small eyes.
Moana is also justified in her scolding nature at times, especially with the immature Maui, rather than damn right condescending like some other ‘Disney princesses’. She is very practical and full of wanderlust, which is infectious – though Disney can’t resist drumming home the ‘listen to yourself and follow your dreams’ mantra it survives on. Still, what’s wrong with that?
Again, the 3D is irrelevant for kids too young to keep their glasses on. The magic is in the colourful storytelling, the mood-raising songs and the fun characters that all have their minute of fame and purpose. There is even a Bowie-esque number by a crab that thrills.
Moana merchandise is in the shops, ready for Christmas. However, this time, you don’t resent the hard Disney sell as Moana is a role model any parent would actively encourage their offspring to have.
Welsh director Marc Evans (Patagonia, My Little Eye) returns with a nostalgic take on growing up in small-town Wales in 1976 in the midst of the summer heat and raging hormones. Schooldays films are ten-a-penny and ever enticing as we get to reminisce at a safe distance at the thrills and fears of our teenage years. Indeed, what this promises is a healthy inject of 1970s glam rock for David Bowie fans – much like a 70s Glee. For admirers of the ever-fearless Minnie Driver, the actress plays an attractive, inspirational drama teacher who (surprise, surprise) stirs more than a few notes. However, aside from a noteworthy performance from swooning, rising star Aneurin Barnard as well, that’s pretty much all Hunky Dory has to offer. It’s surprisingly forgetful for the most part.
In the sweltering summer heat of 1976, keen drama teacher Vivienne (Driver) fights general teenage apathy and frayed tempers to put on an end-of-year, glam rock music version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with all kinds of departmental and student obstacles thrown up in her path. Will she succeed in rallying the easily distracted troops for one last performance they will never forget while tackling institutionally ingrained traditionalism?
Sadly, it’s glaringly obvious just how flimsy the script and plot are, with very little attempt at shaping convincing back-stories to pinpoint the origins of the brewing teen angst – expect that everyone’s getting increasingly hot under the collar from the balmy weather. As much as Evans relies on the feisty nature of his embattled lead actor, Driver, who comes to the role of Vivienne with as much gusto as you would expect from her, and with a half-decent Welsh accent in tow, the film really is precariously held together by one musical episode after another. Thankfully, it does all accumulate in a catchy and strikingly shot finale with Adam Ant look-alike Barnard as Davey perched like a messianic pop icon of the period belting out his biggest number yet while melting a few hearts in the process.
[SPOILER] An intriguing Notes On A Scandal style sub-plot between teacher and pupil is intentionally set up as soon as ‘tortured’ Davey gets dumped by ‘school bike’ Stella (commendably played by Danielle Branch) and wakes up to the singing charms of the older woman. The misguided young fool even orchestrates spending the night at Vivienne’s country sanctuary, in the hope of seducing her with some free loving. But as tenderly awkward as Evans tries to frame this, without going into tricky territory, its overall result is a rather disappointing damp squib for something peddled out with so much promise. At the end of the day, the only real passion felt in Hunky Dory lies in the impressive ensemble of the real-life Welsh band/choir from Ty Cerdd.
One of the film’s main flaws is introducing too many characters to interact with progressive Vivienne – who ironically is a die-hard traditional thespian at heart – as this invariably dilutes the individual significance and outcome on the impressionable young minds she is charged with. Although she should be a driving factor of the plot, she also loses her own way and potency, with the musical numbers piping up to save the day: If nothing else, Barnard alone always has a secure future in West End musical theatre after this – having already demonstrated his singing talent in the lead role in the London stage version of Spring Awakening. Cynically, Driver gets to flatter her own ego with stylish costume design and a couple of singing solos of her own, as well as become the object of teenage desire. It’s true cougar fantasy material.
That said, as much as Evans can rely on an active interest in popular Glee and High School Musical productions, his biggest hurdle is engaging such an audience with the 1970s music the film relies on. Unless its marketing garners the appeal of the young and talented Barnard and Branch, with less than days left to its nationwide release and relatively low-key promotion, everything will not be quite so Hunky Dory at the box office has it blends into the background of serviceable low-budget Brit flicks.