Director Jude Weng’s “Finding ‘Ohana” starts on a good note and continues that feeling through most of its story, which focuses on a tween girl and her family searching for buried treasure while reconnecting with each other and their Hawaiian heritage. Paying homage to adventure movies like “The Goonies,” “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” and “Tomb Raider” without blatantly mimeographing them, this family-friendly, character-forward feature from Netflix charms as well as entertains. Yet by the time the first hour has ended, a slight fatigue encroaches on the effervescent fun and it begins to lose its way.
After winning a competition that involves a high-intensity race around the streets of New York City, 12-year-old Brooklynite Pilialoha “Pili” Kawena (Kea Peahu) expects to cash in her prize by spending a perfect summer vacation at a geocache camp in the Catskills. But those dreams are dashed when her semi-estranged Hawaiian grandfather Kimo (Branscombe Richmond) is put on strict rest following a heart attack. Single mom Leilani (Kelly Hu) hauls her daughter and teenage son Ioane (Alex Aiono), who’s equally resistant to this trip, back to the family home on Oahu to take care of her stubborn, ailing father as well as confront the past they fled — one involving her deceased Army veteran husband.
It’s not long before curious, autonomous tomboy Pili sneaks into Kimo’s converted school bus art studio and unearths a dusty old journal hidden in a false bottom drawer. The book glows when she opens it, revealing sketches and journal entries written in Spanish (which, as luck would have it, she taught herself). These entries tell of the legendary treasure of the Peruvian, a pirate ship carrying chests filled with gold doubloons and precious gems that’s been lost for almost two centuries. Though the diary is incomplete, she learns enough to decipher clues scattered around the island that point to where the fortune lies. Her caring grandpa warns her against going searching for the hidden booty, but she disobeys thinking the discovery will help her family solve all their problems. Ioane catches wind of her scheme and follows, tracking her to make sure of his little sister’s safety.
Instead of keeping the journey solely between the combative brother and sister, screenwriter Christina Strain adds confidants for each. For Pili, there’s Casper (Owen Vaccaro), a red-headed bookworm who enjoys taking his diabetic fluffy cat Mortimer out for daily wagon rides. For Ioane, there’s Hana (Lindsay Watson), who subverts the dreaded “love interest” label by being fiercely independent, funny and smart. Not only do these new friendships strengthen the bond between the siblings, they also add to the “Goonies”-inspired hijinks between the tweens and the teens. The adults have a common pal, too, in Kua Kawena (Ke Huy Quan), but as a tertiary player, his material is more expository than character-driven. Regardless, these inclusions all speak to the tender notion that friends are family, too, something youngsters in the audience might subtly absorb.
On the whole, the narrative’s themes are rooted in Hawaiian cultural heritage with nuanced statements on food, family and friendship. The big action set-pieces engage the brain and propel the character-driven dramatics forward. The “Drunk History” style, anachronistic historical re-imaginings recited from the journal entries (starring Chris Parnell, Marc Evan Jackson and Ricky Garcia as those who hid the treasure) provide an influx of hilarity. Plus, the celebratory mentions of literal Hawaiian poster boy Keanu Reeves sprinkled throughout are wonderfully endearing, if not game recognizing game by nodding to Netflix’s other film, “Always Be My Maybe.”
That said, the film feels even longer than it is, with some scenes in the second act not as snappily executed as they should be for greater emotional poignancy. While it’s admirable that the filmmakers took time to set the stage for familial healing, it comes at a slight detriment to the narrative’s momentum since it’s not integrated economically. For every efficient moment of reunification, like Pili and Ioane’s aspirational observation of their friends getting along, or when Ioane has to jump a cavernous divide to join his sister (it’s a metaphor!), there are two more scenes that belabor the melodrama of Kimo and Lelani’s forgiveness. The ensemble is filled with capable actors bringing heart and humor to their roles, so it’s pleasurable to watch them all work. Yet the scenes themselves contribute to a few lulls.
Even before the film’s final act, it becomes clear that the picture will crumble a little under the weight of the cloying cliché that the real treasure is the friends we made along the way. However, Ralph Waldo Emerson-ism “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” prevails as the greater encompassing sentiment. While imperfect and at times predictable, the adventure these filmmakers and performers take us on feels like a warm tropical breeze.