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loving and moana at the movies

Loving, Jeff Nichols’ new biopic about the couple at the center of the Supreme Court case that ended anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, is neither truly a biopic nor a film about the center of anything. The name’s on the nose, but only incidentally—Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) was a white laborer who, in 1958, married a black woman, Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), who was pregnant with his child, in the relatively safe haven of Washington, D.C., before returning to Virginia to settle down. Police representing the commonwealth of Virginia, with characteristic understanding, arrested them both for “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth.” Over the course of nine years, during which the rapidly growing Loving family was forced to relocate to Washington but kept returning, despite the inevitable challenges, to their native state and flirted with legal aid before demurring in favor of privacy, their case eventually rose through the courts, and the rest, as they insist on saying, is history.

The thing about the story of Loving, though, is that it isn’t history. Nichols’ script and his tender, tone-heavy direction allow for no pontification and little discussion at all—neither does Edgerton, who plays Loving as a human brick wall who lives to protect and defend and is either too slow or too naïve to understand why Virginia should have any interest in keeping him away from his wife. Nichols, Edgerton, and Negga, in an intimate and careful triad aided by a wonderful cameo by Michael Shannon and, bizarrely, another from Nick Kroll, dance a quiet, studied dance to tell a story that’s fundamentally about the love between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of anything else—the case, their children, their friends, or much of any context whatsoever. This is either tunnel vision or revolutionary, but one thing is for sure—this is no ordinary biopic. It’s too slow, too beautiful, too atmospheric, and above all too unique. You’ll either adore it or forget it—but hell, who are we to begrudge two people in love?

Among the primary attractions of Moana, the new Disney princess film (kind of), is that it confirms retrospectively that Frozen was a masterpiece. During the massively forgettable decade and a half between Mulan and the aforementioned ice-gasm, the studio’s girl-meets-boy-meets-anthropomorphic-sidekick-voiced-by-a-comedian formula curdled, and there was no joy in the marketing department, for Tangled had struck out. Then, suddenly, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee stumbled upon a method of expressing girl power without reeking of condescension, and until a billion-dollar empire fueled by squeals of “Let it Go” made us forget it, the world wondered at a Disney movie with a great score and genuinely well-structured character development. It had been a long time.

Moana can be seen as the inevitable B-picture to Frozen, the gelatin mold that retains its predecessor’s shape while folding somewhat if prodded. There’s the daughter of a Polynesian chieftain, the titular Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the sidekick, a burly demigod named Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is by no means as delightful as he could be), and, most importantly, the idea of pairing our heroine off is never even considered as a possibility—which is refreshing. So is the irresistible if less-than-cohesive score by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i—which should bring in, as it did me, the Miranda fanatics as well as the Disney ones.

But despite the plentiful ocean which seems to function as a third main character in the film (Disney animators, it seems, are fixated on hair and water but still can’t figure out human fingers), “refreshing” as a term can’t be applied to much else. The movie is fun and beautiful and diverting but never really interesting. It’s impossible to understand Moana the way we can understand Ariel or Belle or (sigh) Elsa, because we don’t know who she is; we know what she does. The movie, despite being the third consecutive Disney musical to lack a decent villain, is obsessed with short-term action, probably because it looks good in trailers. If we want exemplary storytelling from this studio in this economy, we’ll probably have to sacrifice originality to do it. Buckle in, folks—Frozen 2 is coming in 2018.