Synopsis: A summer in rural O‘ahu takes an exciting turn for two Brooklyn-raised siblings when a journal pointing to long-lost treasure sets them on an epic adventure with new friends, and leads them to reconnect with their Hawaiian heritage.
Stars: Kea Peahu, Alex Aiono, Lindsay Watson, Owen Vaccaro, Kelly Hu, Branscombe Richmond, Chris Parnell, Marc Evan Jackson, Ricky Garcia, Jonathan Ke Quan
Director: Jude Weng
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Each year I try to make a promise that I’ll challenge myself to explore/review more films from a certain genre and one that I find I sometimes gloss over are the midrange family films that often are forgotten in the mix of available titles. These aren’t your Disney animated films aimed at younger audiences nor are they the more adult leaning fare masquerading as all-ages family entertainment but those going after the elusive market of the 9-15 year-olds that are the budding consumers of today and up and coming leaders of tomorrow. This really sparked for me after seeing Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey back in November and being totally knocked out by that Christmas-themed musical which went on to be an extremely popular title on Netflix over the holidays. In the past, I’ve skated past similar features because I’ve definitely aged out of that category and, well, didn’t feel my review would add much to the conversation. It’s a new year…so I figured we’d try another one of these out.
On the outside looking in, Finding ‘Ohana felt like the type of movie that I would have probably begged to see in theaters when I was a 10-year-old but sitting here thirty years later didn’t exactly scream “must see” to me. However, those feelings were set aside once I heard an early description of the film invoke the magical two-word phrase that will perk up the ears on any child raised in the ‘80s: The Goonies. Yes, the beloved 1985 pre-teen adventure film that set many a kid on the hunt for buried treasure was used to describe this new film set on the island of Oahu premiering on Netflix and after that I pretty much blacked out with glee until I was ready to hit play on the screener. I mean, having recently re-watched all of the Indiana Jones films (yes, even the fourth one) my appetite for unearthing hidden gold was at full-bore so there was no way I was missing the chance to continue that feeling. An added bit of fun was finding out that Ke Huy Quan, one of the young stars of The Goonies, had a small role in the film as well – two worlds colliding…a positive sign.
At 12 years old, New Yorker Pilialoha “Pili” is a Geocache champion on her way to a camp in the Catskills for pre-teens with similar talents when she and her brother Ioane “E” move with their mother (Kelly Hu, Strange Days) to Hawai’i to care for their grandfather (Branscombe Richmond, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) who has fallen ill. Though originally born in the area they now visit, the city raised kids don’t have any real connection with their island heritage or the history of their people, an important piece of culture their grandfather hopes to teach them while they are there. With their widowed mom distracted helping her father heal and deal with mounting bills, siblings E (YouTube star Alex Aiono) and Pili (newcomer Kea Peahu) are always at odds but try to stay out each other’s way…a hard task when there’s little to do without WiFi.
Exploring her grandfather’s make-shift art studio like the natural discoverer she is, Pili finds a journal supposedly obtained from a pirate that emerged from the wilds after hiding a fortune in gold obtained as the result of a mutinous shipwreck. Passed down through their family for generations, no one has been able to locate the treasure by following the clues…but they didn’t have Pili’s smarts in dissecting clues. Before long, Pili has become obsessed with finding the lost treasure and sets out to claim it with a little help from brainy neighborhood friend Casper (Owen Vacarro, The House with a Clock in Its Walls) and, eventually, E and his island crush, Hana (Lindsay Watson). Together, the four will pass through nooks and crannies, cross between large cavern ledges where lava flows several stories below, swim through sunken tunnels, and traverse waterfalls as they seek their fortune while finding strength as a team.
While Finding ‘Ohana is sadly not the next Goonies (or even the next Jingle Jangle), it makes its own mark in other ways that are commendable. First and foremost, the focus on family is and always will be something I’ll admire the movie for wrapping its arms around with such affection. There’s a richness and validity to the way screenwriter Christina Strain injects the film with moments that reinforce the importance of coming home and remembering your ancestors, the living and the dead. Loving those that are gone and continuing to celebrate their lives is another way of paying respect to their memory. The message may be drilled in a little tighter than necessary by the end, but as adults that have likely experienced loss and understand the “why’s” maybe we need those words a little less than the target audience that will surely be devouring the film and pick up on its themes of familial bonds.
Carrying a PG rating keeps the stakes relatively low for all involved so the perils the four find themselves in as they go further in on their quest for treasure aren’t ever that dangerous, and in turn aren’t that exciting. There’s no huge puzzle to solve like at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or what the entire final hour of The Goonies undertakes but it does allow for the production team to get creative with the sets they create to look like the inside of caves or tunnels that have been unoccupied for centuries. While the final set unfortunately looks like an overdesigned waterpark at the Wisconsin Dells, there’s a nice little section by a rainwater pool lit by luminescence in the walls. Mostly, though, parents should know the PG rating comes from the script’s rather crude obsession of talking about boy’s nipples and several mentions of an actual anatomic butthole. I just…don’t get it.
Director Jude Weng is making her feature film debut and delivers Finding ‘Ohana as a mostly pleasant affair that, with the caveat just mentioned, should make for a nice family movie night for the old kid crowd. I think it’s slightly too long running nearly two hours and could easily have been trimmed down by twelve minutes or more without losing any of the positive impact the non-adventure/action scenes had. I definitely wouldn’t touch the final 15 minutes in which Weng and her cast find some lovely little moments of connection to each other and the audience. And it all culminates in a fun credits sequence that reinforce what we already have felt…that this cast really enjoyed each other and making the film. I think, with the right frame of mind, you might enjoy it too.