Netflix has recently tried its hand at kid-tailored superhero and spy movies, so it’s fitting that its next kid-friendly adventure follows another well-worn genre: the treasure hunt. In the tradition of the 1985 treasure-hunting classic The Goonies, Finding ’Ohana follows a group of kids braving a series of dangers while seeking out a secret pirate treasure. But director Jude Weng puts an updated spin on the idea by turning the biggest stakes into the kids’ family dramas, and adding specific notes about the Hawaiian culture that defines the characters.
Though the movie stretches itself too thin with some plot points and adds some unnecessary conflict, Finding ’Ohana uses its quest tale to tell a sweet story about reconnecting with family and culture.
[Ed. Note: This review contains slight spoilers for Finding ’Ohana.]
The family journey kicks off when 12-year-old geocaching enthusiast Pili (Kea Peahu) ends up in Hawaii with her mom Leilani (Kelly Hu) and her older brother Ioane (Alex Aiono) after her grandfather, Papa (Branscombe Richmond), has a heart attack. Though Pili and Ioane were both born in Hawaii, they’ve lived in Brooklyn for most of their lives. Leilani is worried about her father, but has had some unresolved tension with him since she left the island years ago, after her husband’s death.
Pili is originally disappointed by the trip because it’s keeping her away from geocaching camp. But then she discovers an old journal detailing hidden treasure. Along with plucky animal-lover Casper (Owen Vaccaro) and responsible teenager Hana (Lindsay Watson), Pili and Ioane start searching for the lost fortune, hoping it might save their grandfather’s land from foreclosure.
The complex family dynamics center the movie, though some of the conflicts become more relevant than others. The strongest threads end up coming from the characters who are together for most of the movie. After a second accident, Papa is bedridden and he and Leilani fight about what that means for his future, while Ioane and Pili must settle their differences while on a dangerous quest. These arcs get nuance and weight, with no clear right or wrong. By the end, the family members have all come to understand each other a little better. Ioane and Pili feel like real siblings, from the very specific things they tease each other about to the way they physically fight. The treasure hunt is important to the movie, but the family dynamics give Finding ’Ohana its heart.
Less smooth, however, is the disconnect between Leilani and her kids. The movie hints that it has to do with their dead father, but while Ioane calls his mom out for not spending enough time with them at home, and throwing herself into work, it’s never even clear what her job is. Ioane and Pili feel betrayed that their mother would consider selling their Brooklyn apartment without consulting them, while Leilani feels guilty for leaving her father behind. That alone would be weighty enough, without the absent, work-obsessed mother bit, which feels like it was added to further complicate the emotions. But because the kids spend most of the movie away from their mom, their problems don’t get resolved as neatly.
As for the treasure hunt itself, much like 2019’s Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Finding ’Ohana manages to keep the thrill-seeking of the archaeological adventure genre, but also interrogate some of its uglier aspects. As fun as the treasure-hunting can be in adventures like the Indiana Jones and The Mummy film franchises, it does rely on desecrating tombs and stealing artifacts from other cultures. In Finding ‘Ohana, this gets nicely subverted: Pili and her friends want to find the treasure to help save her grandfather’s land, but realize the glory and riches that are not important.
They find the hidden cave from the journal, and their trek is full of natural obstacles and booby traps, creepy spiders and spooky skeletons. As Pili, Ioane, Hana, and Casper venture through the cave, they bond and argue and eventually piece together the full story behind the hidden treasure. It’s satisfying to see their banter evolve. And at the end, Weng finds a way to make the discovery into the adventure — the characters deal with the consequences of stumbling onto places they shouldn’t, and ultimately learn more about their own Hawaiian culture.
The movie works best when it focuses on two things: the treasure hunt and the family story. They tie together beautifully, with the siblings learning more about local legends and customs and each other through their adventure. But there are a handful of superfluous plot points that aren’t dealt with as neatly. Ioane finds a secret Juilliard application in Hana’s car, which promptly disappears from the storyline, then gets brought up for three seconds in the movie’s third act, then dropped again. They do eventually smooch, though, because sure, why not add a random teen romance? Most of the treasure hunt is exciting, but some shoehorned stakes — like a deadly spider bite — just detract from the overall mission. Weng and stretch the movie too thin at points, when they should just zero in on the movie’s central strengths.
Because in the end, Finding ’Ohana isn’t about those extra plot points. Heck, it isn’t even about finding treasure. It’s about reconnecting with family and discovering a cultural heritage. That cultural specificity is what separates it from treasure-hunting movies of the past, where the thrill of the hunt came from the glory of riches; in Finding ‘Ohana, Hawaiian cultural customs and legends color the fun romp, but also bolster the family themes. For the most part, Weng weaves adventure and sentimentality together, but when it comes down to it, Finding ’Ohana works when it focuses on the ohana at its core.
Finding ’Ohana is now streaming on Netflix.