Pili (Kea Peahu) has her sights set on attending a Geocaching camp, but after her grandfather (Branscombe Richmond) has a heart attack, Pili must forfeit her prize and go to Hawaii with her mother Leilani (Kelly Hu) and brother Ioane (Alex Aiono). Once there Pili finds a journal among her grandfather’s possessions that tells of a group of privateers who hid a cache of gold on the island and sets off to find the treasure unaware of the dangers surrounding it.
Directed by TV sitcom staple Jude Weng and written by comic book/screenwriter Christina Strain whose work can be seen in cult favorite TV show The Magicians and Netflix’s upcoming series Shadow and Bone, Finding ‘Ohana marks another original by Netflix. Finding ‘Ohana feels like a mixture of Lilo & Stitch by way of National Treasure, and while there are good elements on display, the movie is a little clumsy out of the gate.
Kea Peahu makes her debut here as our protagonist Pili and brings a natural energy to her performance that is engaging. She does a good job conveying the drive, stubbornness, and arrogance of her character and has some nice moments of vulnerability and pathos throughout the film. YouTube personality/singer Alex Aiono makes his film debut here and for the most part does reasonably well, but sometimes the clunky material especially early on doesn’t allow him to make the best impressions, but despite this he does feel engaging and falls comfortably into his role as the older brother dealing with an overly energized mischief prone sister. The supporting cast is also quite good. Kelly Hu despite a somewhat limited role plays her role as a struggling single parent trying to juggle multiple crises at once quite well and Branscombe Richmond plays the curmudgeonly grandfather character quite well and has some very sweet moments with Kea Peahu as Pili where they convey a genuine sense of family. But easily the best performance is Owen Vaccaro as Casper a nerdy overly cautious neighbor who Pili (kind of) befirends who gets some very funny scenes and lines in the movie. Vaccaro was previously seen in The House with a Clock in its Walls playing a lead and its nice to see him here again giving another good performance.
The movie itself is very hit and miss, the opening is very clumsily handled with characters often telling us about situations rather than showing us them, and while the characters feel like there’s a richness to be explored for engagement and pathos, it often feels like those take a backseat to shenanigans and very on the nose humor. There’s also not much in the way of drive at the beginning of the treasure hunt as the movie just kind of ambles along from one marker to the next. The flashback sequences are also rather underwhelming as they’re subject to a running gag where the characters in the flashbacks will speak anachronistic dialogue as dubbed by Pili’s Kea Peahu that is somewhat chuckle worthy upon first impression but becomes kind of grating upon repeated use. By the half way point I was ready to label this a very “meh” movie, but then it kept going.
After a flabby first half that’s haphazardly delivered the movie course corrects and makes its stakes more dire and adds some tension and drive that’s been missing from the movie up to that point. Without giving too much away there’s some scenes of visual wonder and danger that all tie into the themes of family and Hawaiian mythology quite well and actually make the movie feel more engaging as it goes on.
Finding ‘Ohana is clearly meant for a family audience, and as a family film its perfectly decent. The acting is spot on from everyone involved and the exploration of Hawaiian mythology is quite fascinating (though admittedly I’m unaware of how accurate it is) and the sense of adventure is quite fun once it gets going. Unfortunately clunky writing and an overly slow pace in the first half create some hurdles the movie needs to work around, but once it finds its footing it becomes an engaging adventure.
Review by IonicBreezeMachine