“How far I’ll go.” The Edge of Seventeen (2016) and Disney’s Moana

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I always cringe a bit when I hear the phrase “coming of age” applied to a cinematic or literary or televised narrative. It bespeaks an unwarranted nostalgia for an awkward, nauseating, hormonal epoch which we all share and which we all should forget. Forever. Thoroughly. 

(And people who gleefully remain stuck in their high school years, glorying in the minutiae of their pubescent lives can’t be trusted. Not one whit. They just ain’t right.)

I wonder if what really bothers me about the term is that the “coming of age” concept – let’s charitably upgrade it to the term “personal evolution,” shall we? – should not be limited to one’s teenage decade, when one generally has the perspective of a fruit-fly.  

Do any of us at any age really ever overcome the free-floating, rampant anxiety of peer pressure, isolation, and capriciousness caused by our fellow man on this Big Blue Marble? Nope.

Blessedly, two current films – one a perky animated musical fairy tale and the other … well … not – turn this tired formula on its head, giving us a pair of parables that stealthily inspire while tweaking the status quo.

The Edge of Seventeen, named after the Stevie Nicks’ ditty, which inexplicably never actually appears in the film, stars True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin, a breath of fresh toxin for whom all the mores and conventions of American youth, public education, and “being cool” are utterly confounding. Unlike spiritual forebears Juno or Mean Girls or Easy A, Edge of Seventeen, directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, doesn’t hold teen life in contempt, as some abstract planet populated by satirical (though accurate) stereotypes. Rather, the film uses the petty disappointments and soul-sucking betrayals of high school days as metaphor and lens for our common, fallible humanity.

Nadine, whose beloved father has passed away, navigates (really poorly) a minefield of family and friends, including a sympathetically caustic Kyra Sedgwick as the mother hanging on by a thread, Glee‘s Blake Jenner in a sweetly understated turn as the golden boy brother whose “head is much too large” for his body, and a wry Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s bored/boring history teacher in another version of his now-trademark folksy sot-with-a-heart-mentor persona (see: Hunger Games‘ Haymitch Abernathy). Newcomer Hayden Szeto steals every scene as Nadine’s classmate and swooning suitor, his open-heart and sharp-wit sympatico with Nadine’s mind – the rare teenage cinematic male not depicted as some skeezy perv.

But the movie is Steinfeld’s. Capitalizing on the Oscar-nominated authenticity she exemplified in her film debut (True Grit) but jettisoning any Coen Bros-dictated pretense and quirk, Steinfeld gives us as pure a depiction of youth-in-revolt as any we may have seen on film (save James Dean in East of Eden – that one’s untouchable). And what makes it even better? Her performance is damn funny. Angst is awkward, and we all can relate to it, but, if you deftly mine the comic gems from emotional pratfalls, you’ll have the audience in the palm of your hand.

We are all just one bad day away from feeling like we are in adolescent hell all over again, and Edge of Seventeen, built so beautifully around Steinfeld’s layered, affecting portrayal of a young person continually at odds with the ever-shifting rules of a game she doesn’t much want to play, is a revelation.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Disney’s Moana is the sunny, show-tune-spewing, computer-generated yin to Edge of Seventeen’s yang. Based loosely on Polynesian mythology, the 56th animated offering from the Mouse House, relates the hero’s quest of a teenage girl (Moana, voiced with luminous empathy by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) as she seeks the aid of a mischievous but debilitated demigod (Maui, portrayed with smarmy sparkle by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to prevent the destruction of her island home.

Moana isn’t a princess, a point made most emphatically throughout the film; she is the island chief’s daughter. Moana’s respected place as a leader in the hierarchy of rule is never in question, nor is she smitten with some princely suitor. (Of course, it’s a Disney flick so she has a couple of adorably merchandisable sidekicks – in this instance, a pig and a rooster.) The narrative tension is built on her transition to authority, on her solving the impending calamity that will destroy her people, and on her asserting her independence from the cultural norms. Bully for Disney.

I wonder if directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) had in the back of their minds that the timing of this film, coupled with the potential election of America’s first female president, would have offered an impactful statement to young audience members about celebrating the power of equality (gender, race, ethnicity) and leadership therein.  Of course, now there is some unintended irony in the timing, but the message is more essential than ever.

The songs are all written by the inescapable Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) along with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. This may be blasphemy in theatre circles, but, as talented as Miranda may be, his compositions (to my ear) suffer from a repetitiveness of style and form, bordering on monotony. Lucky for Moana, this tendency actually suits animated film (better than the stage), where familiarity speeds action and emotional connection.

That said, the music is all perfectly fine, with Moana’s anthemic “How Far I’ll Go” serving in glowing fashion as this film’s “Part of Your World” or “Belle,” sans any lingering strains of “Someday My Prince Will Come” passivity or longing.

Maui’s signature ditty “You’re Welcome” is catchy but underwritten. However, as delivered by consummate showman Johnson (why hasn’t he been cast in a full-blown, live musical yet?!), the number becomes a transcendent, careening take-down of male id and superego.

The standout song for this viewer, though, is “Shiny,” performed by Flight of the Conchords‘ Jermaine Clement as a mountainous crab (yep.), encrusted in gems and precious metals. Imagine if The Jungle Book‘s “Trust In Me” had been written and performed by David Bowie … on a deeply troubling acid trip. In fact, that entire sequence is one of the film’s trippiest (and there are a lot of surreal moments throughout), employing black light, disco ball flourishes, and a Busby Berkeley-choreographed cascade of tropical fish. Is an animator’s penchant toward psychedelia evidence of great inventive genius or of lazy time-filling? We’ll never know.

It’s hard to watch anything these days – movies, TV, cat videos on YouTube – without politicizing the moment. I think many of us, right now, share a palpable fear for the future of diversity in this nation, a nation that’s fundamental core should be tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion. That said, and at the risk of overstating my case, movies like Edge of Seventeen and Moana give me hope. We can be good. We can be better than we are. We can celebrate the oddballs, the misfits, and those among us yearning to breathe free. Let’s keep that up, ok?

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moana-pigReel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).  In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“How many lives is one man-cub worth?” Disney’s The Jungle Book (2016)

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46830494

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book has been adapted by Hollywood a lot. In the next two years alone, we have two live action adaptations on the way, including Disney’s just-released remake of its own 1960s animated offering. There were versions made in the 1940s, 1980s, 1990s, on television, live-action, animated, on and on. Even characters like Tarzan (and those countless adaptations and homages and rip-offs – hello, “George of the Jungle”) likely owe a debt to Kipling’s seminal work about a “man-cub” named Mowgli who is raised by wolves and finds himself at the crossroads of an animal culture war over who the true “king of the jungle” should be.

Like Kipling’s Just So Stories (which I actually prefer), the original format of The Jungle Book (and its sequel) is a series of allegorical tales, recounting Mowgli’s adventures, with anthropomorphic animals serving as avatars for the highs and lows of human culture (e.g. greed, pride, sloth, bravery, compassion, etc.). It is unsurprising, then, that the Mouse House, with its long history of invoking the innocence of our animal friends to teach kid life lessons (see: Bambi, Dumbo, The Lion King, Finding Nemo) would return to Kipling’s rich well time and again. (And the merchandising possibilities ain’t half bad either.)

I have to admit that I’m one of few people on the planet who just isn’t that terribly gaga over the Disney animated classic. The Sherman Brothers’ score isn’t as iconic as you might think – really, can you remember more than 2.5 songs from it? “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” and … maybe “Trust In Me” (the latter standing out mostly because of Sterling Holloway’s trademark lateral lisp sibilant “ess” sounds). The animation is that regrettably flat Hanna-Barbera-esque style into which Disney fell from the late 60s to the early 80s. And the whole enterprise just seems clunkily episodic and ends on a weirdly dour and kinda creepy note about Mowgli’s burgeoning sexuality. Ewww.

That said, I’m happy to note that director Jon Favreau (Iron Man), while treating the source material and the beloved animated film with reverence, deftly course-corrects for a modern audience. The look of this remake is beyond lush. Building upon the remarkable CGI animal work of The Life of Pi, Favreau’s team gives us a fully realized jungle, teeming with gorgeously rendered, remarkably expressive creatures. He pulls shy of the kind of pandering “kid humor” we typically see in children’s films these days, though I got weary of hearing the word “cool” bandied about, as it was more jarring than inclusive. (Sorry, I can be a snob about stuff like that.)

I’ve been hot and cold over the wave of Disney live action remakes/reimaginings to date (Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent, Cinderella), but this one gets it right. To this point, there has been a strange reticence to fully embrace the classic musical numbers associated with these films’ animated inspirations. Favreau cleverly sidesteps that issue, incorporating the aforementioned three numbers (the ones we actually remember) as spoken/sung interludes that flow naturally from the character set-ups and ditching the remaining numbers that would just be goofy and forced. As Baloo is about to launch into signature ditty “Bare Necessities,” he takes a meta-swipe at Mowgli’s assertion that a pledge chanted by the wolves earlier in the film was music: “That’s not a song. That’s propaganda.”

(The three songs – “Bare Necessities,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” “Trust In Me” – also make repeat appearances during one of the most intricate and beautiful end-credits sequences I can recall in ages. You must stick around for them – highly entertaining and a lovely recap celebration of the film you’ve just viewed. Good for Favreau – that is a lost art in Hollywood these days.)

The voice casting is spot on with Bill Murray (a lower-key “Baloo” than Phil Silvers’), Ben Kingsley (his “Bagheera”sounding more Daniel-Craig-tough-guy than a typical Kingsley performance), Idris Elba (a hauntingly ominous “Shere Khan”), Lupita Nyong’o (deeply affecting as Mowgli’s wolf mother “Raksha”), Scarlett Johansson (an ethereal “Kaa”), Giancarlo Esposito (a militant “Akela”) and Christopher Walken (being full-creepy-a**-Walken as “King Louie”). Newcomer Neel Sethi is decent as Mowgli, mostly avoiding the adorable ragamuffin traps of the role but totally missing any of the feral survivalism that could have made for a truly transformative experience. Favreau does such a fabulous job immersing his audience in a layered world where wild kingdom danger lurks around every corner that Sethi’s day-at-the-mall pluck just didn’t quite complete the cinematic thought.

Favreau uses The Jungle Book‘s allegorical roots as a means of combating bullying in all its modern day forms. We live in a world where wannabe statesmen wag fingers, brutishly bloviate, and compare hand sizes; where school children bring semi-automatic rifles into the cafeteria and politicians fall all over themselves defending that “right” (such a funny choice of word); where gender, age, race, sexuality, class, species become an open invitation for hate and derision and alienation, wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross (with apologies to Sinclair Lewis). Favreau’s film is much less overtly political than those words might suggest, but just as Kipling used his stories to teach children lessons of kindness and acceptance, bravery and tolerance, Favreau (like Disney’s recent hit Zootopia) is challenging the kids (and parents)  in his audience to question their preconceptions and break apart the artificial boundaries separating us.

To that end, Favreau jettisons the original ending of Disney’s animated version (no doe-eyed potential paramour carrying a bucket of water this time), offering instead a tableau of an animal kingdom united against their oppressor(s). Early in the film, Akela asks, “How many lives is one man-cub worth?” How many indeed.

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LMA 16 3Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.