When Moana was being developed a few years ago, Disney was probably thinking about bringing more welcome diversity into its signature Walt Disney Animation Studios line and the possible introduction of a new Disney Princess. What the company couldn’t have expected was that its newest animated musical would arrive in theaters directly in the wake of a traumatic presidential election that has left huge swaths of the country frightened about their futures. Same goes for Warner Bros., which announced Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them back in less tumultuous 2013. It was supposed to be the start of a planned five-film return to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world and not a cinematic security blanket under which people would want to huddle.
But here we are, crouched in the shadow of President-elect Donald Trump, and this is how the latest efforts from two of the largest purveyors of pop-cultural comfort fare against the oppressive weight of so much real-world distress.
Moana is 2016’s second Disney animated feature, and it’s considerably more traditional in comparison to Zootopia, the talking-animal-buddy-cop-racial-allegory it follows. Its title character is a South Pacific Islander chieftain’s daughter, voiced by 15-year-old Native Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho. She has an animal sidekick (an idiotic rooster named Heihei), a parent who doesn’t understand (her father, Chief Tui, voiced by Temuera Morrison), and a longing to go beyond her prescribed role in the community in which she was born. Her story is inspired by folklore — Polynesian myths, including that of the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a trickster Moana is tasked with recruiting on a quest to return a mystical stone and restore balance to the area.
In other words, Moana represents an easeful return to a particular formula central to Disney’s brand, and the familiarity of the rhythms of her story might prove a solace. But it’s disappointing that the things that are most compelling about her are the selective ways in which she diverges from type. She doesn’t, for instance, have a love interest — the movie instead opts for a bickering, reluctant mentor–mentee relationship between her and Maui, who teaches her how to sail and navigate by the stars. She isn’t white, and neither are the other characters or the majority of the voice cast, which is heavy on actors of Pacific Islander descent like Nicole Scherzinger, Rachel House, and Jemaine Clement. And the proportions of her body aren’t as impossible as Aladdin’s Jasmine, or The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, or Frozen’s Elsa — girl’s got some solid, strong-looking legs. She looks like she could learn to travel the ocean, solo. Which she does.
She also learns to believe in herself and her own specialness in a way that might have more impact and feel less rote if she weren’t already being trusted to lead as the future chief and if the anthropomorphised ocean hadn’t designated her as its chosen one when she was a toddler — a scene that is, to be clear, enchanting as all hell. As is, you start to wonder how much additional assurance one magically blessed royal needs. Moana is so carefully nice that it creates the feeling of being swaddled in bubble wrap, its writers (who at one point included New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, though it’s Jared Bush who has the listed credit) so careful with regard to Doing Things Right that they don’t do a lot to actually develop their main character or give her difficult choices. The finale even conveniently allows her to pursue her dreams of exploring the ocean without stepping away from her duties to her people.
Maybe a little bubble wrap sounds good right about now — or maybe it sounds smothering. But Moana’s indisputable saving grace is how good it looks — really, better than any other Disney movie to date, overflowing with lush, brazen beauty, from the verdant island on which Moana grows up to the vision she has of her voyaging ancestors gliding by on spectral canoes across a nighttime ocean. It’s through its visuals that Moana achieves moments of the sublime, though the Lin-Manuel Miranda songs aren’t bad either. The big ballad, “How Far I’ll Go,” may not be a carpool circuit banger on the level of “Let It Go,” but it’s a mighty earworm nonetheless, one that seems ready for at least a few months of omnipresence, an “I Want” song turned radio-ready empowerment anthem. Moana may be so calculated in terms of Doing Things Right that it only occasionally sparks to life as art, but there’s something admirable in how hard it tries — in terms of representation, in terms of not defining its lead by the men in her life, and in terms of incorporating Pacific Islander talent. It’s an effort toward inclusion that isn’t perfect, but as a gesture, it still means a lot. Comfort level: Middling
Familiarity may be a mixed blessing in Moana, but it’s the main draw of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film promising a new story in an old universe, taking place across the Atlantic decades before the Harry Potter series. America in the 1920s has its own flavor — nonmagical types are called “No-Majs” instead of Muggles, mingling with them or letting them in on the fact that magic exists is forbidden, and everything is overseen by the Magical Congress of the United States of America, or MACUSA. But there are still wands and wizards and wonders, among them a suitcase containing a menagerie of magical creatures smuggled into the country from England by Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne).
Newt isn’t Harry Potter. He’s not terribly comfortable with people — he’s shy and not into eye contact — but he’s knowledgable, caring, and great with animals. Or at least, he’s great in the way of a devoted pet owner who fondly watches someone getting chased by their growling dog while shouting about how “Fido is really friendly, promise.” Neither he, nor the other characters — among them former Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and hapless No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) — are as easily endearing as the boy wizard, but then they’ve already done their growing up. Their concerns, too, are all grown-up, involving illegal trafficking, or finding a way back to work after being disgraced, or getting a bank loan to start a business after spending years abroad during the First World War.
Then there’s the crusading anti-wizard extremist group going around called the Second-Salemers, headed up Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller). There’s concern among the maybe-too-set-in-their-ways MACUSA, led by President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), about keeping wizarding a secret. There’s a notorious Dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald, who’s escaped from Europe and whose whereabouts are unknown. There is, frankly, way too much stuff going on for one movie, and much of it is grim or at least filled with foreboding. Like a lot of recent franchise installments, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them feels like it’s more concerned with setting up future business than it is with developing its own plot, doing a lot of setup that doesn’t yet pay off but that crowds into plot threads that do. Its final act includes some flubbed reveals and a set piece that should feel emotionally wrenching but that instead comes across as just hurried.
And yet…it feels great to revisit Rowling’s creation, even in spin-off form, and even when we’re reintroduced to it in an era that’s a lot less cozy than a magical British wizarding school. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a story about the retrieval of escaped magical creatures in New York that grows to include fears of discovery and persecution by the No-Majs, worry about wizardly retaliation and war, and the damage caused by repression of identity. These themes have pings of present-day resonance — in terms of extremism, of expressing sexuality, and of prejudice — without pushing too hard at the parallels, and they end up making the film more of a consolation rather than less. Which is something that Moana, in all of its sometimes numbing pleasantness, misses out on — it’s not a lack of pain that allows escapist entertainment to take you away from harsher realities for a second, it’s how that pain is handled. Comfort level: Surprisingly High