A teenage girl called Moana, resident of a small isolated tribe on one of the Polynesian islands, is chosen by the ocean to be an emissary to the banished demigod Maui and convince him to return the Heart of the Sea (a small pounamu stone) to Te Fiti -the goddess he stole it from who’s cursed their world with famine as retribution.
Though this is a standard and fittingly mythic hero's journey, the story is nonetheless an exciting one to follow due in part to the unique climate and atmosphere pervaded throughout. Every frame of Moana is drenched in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture, which I thought would make it too similar to Lilo & Stitch, but that film was really just using the culture as backdrop to tell an intimate story. This story is far from intimate being grand in stakes and scale. It falls into a few clichés for sure, though they’re mostly pedestrian. That is apart from one towards the end that’s pretty groan-worthy, especially considering we just saw it in Zootopia too. But the detail put into the culture is really excellent, capturing the stylized look of the native art and storytelling. And though it does a lot that’s not that unique on a basic level, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the powers at work. Maui possesses a giant fish hook with which he can transform himself into any animal. He’s also got magic tattoos, one of which he talks to (yeah that’s pretty weird), and Moana has her influence over the sea that manifests itself as that water snake from The Abyss. And I also really admire the courage this film had, and I realize it’s actually the first of the “princess films” to do so, in not creating a villain. The mission is one of restoration and while there are minor figures along the way who Moana and Maui come into conflict with, there’s no major antagonist. And you know what, kudos Disney!
One of the most likeable parts of this movie is Moana herself who manages to be both the dedicated courageous girl on a quest while also a teenager with obligations and a nature to second guessing herself. In some ways she’s very similar to other Disney leads of this sort in that she feels a “calling” away from her duties as heir to the throne …I mean chieftanship. Yeah the movie addresses this the way you’re all thinking in an attempt to like Frozen, subvert some of the archetypes of the genre. It doesn’t work as well, but it’s infrequent and cute. But even if she isn’t entirely original, her character journey at least feels that way, and you’re with her the whole way through. She holds her own and is even the character you’re more invested in next to a demigod. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Moana is that her voice actress, sixteen year old Auli’i Cravalho is a newcomer. This actress is great both in her delivery and conviction, and damn is she a good singer! But I’ll get to that. Maui doesn’t start off as interesting, being just about your basic egotistical blow-hard, but because he’s voiced by Dwayne Johnson there’s a natural charm and even heart to his character. Even if he can be a little annoying at times and his design a little over-the-top. There’s depth to him though as you’d expect from a character based on a folkloric figure and when it’s revealed it works pretty well. As the film’s central pairing, Moana and Maui are fine; there’s not quite as much chemistry as in Zootopia, but they work off each other well. None of the other characters leave much of an impact. Temeura Morrison voices Moana’s overbearing father who’s got a not quite unnoticeable New Zealand accent, while Nichole Scherzinger of all people voices her mother. Moana’s got a grandma figure voiced by Rachel House who acts as both her inspiration and comic relief. Unfortunately she’s a fairly recycled trope Disney’s already used in Pocahontas, Mulan, and even Musker and Clements’ last film, The Princess and the Frog. Jermaine Clement is in this film, and of course Alan Tudyk who this time does a Frank Welker kind of role in voicing Moana’s pet rooster Heihei. Heihei, as well as her pig Pua are very typical forgettable pet characters.
The strength of Moana doesn’t lie in its characters though, nor in its comedy. Indeed the biggest weakness of Moana is the humour. There are a few one-liners that get a laugh but for the most part they’re very manufactured “kids comedy” jokes. You saw a couple in the trailer like Maui’s “blow-dart in my butt-cheek” and they’re not much better than that. Unlike Frozen which knew the kind of film it was and subdued the humour accordingly, this film tries to give the comedy as much focus as the Rich Moore films. But because Moore’s not involved, it’s not as smart. And so we have to sit through a horrible twitter pun, some awkward exchanges between Moana and Maui, and some forced cuteness that’s a little insufferable.
What pulls us through these moments a lot of the time though is the beauty of the animation. The great green island and the ocean alone look terrific, but this movie employs a few different kinds of animation styles, including some hand-drawn interwoven with rich colour schemes, all of course reflecting the culture in spotlight. This movie’s ocean is one of the best looking animated renderings of water I’ve seen in a while to the point a lot of the time it feels incredibly real. The animation succeeds in both its calming nature and when it’s at its most fierce. Speaking of which, there’s one sequence where the heroes are attacked by creatures called Kakamora and it’s one of the most fun and best executed action scenes Disney’s ever given us. The design of these creatures and their ships as well as the relationship between the creatures and their ships -it’s quite obvious more than a few people working at Disney were inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road …and a little bit of Waterworld mixed in there. The Kakamora are only the beginning though, as they continuously run into more interesting creatures with really impactful creative designs. In fact a couple of the designs in the climax hearken back to “The Firebird Suite” of Fantasia 2000, still my favourite animated short, and seeing this parallel in visuals I of course, absolutely loved. On top of that the locations are all unique, the ships which are very minimal in how they’re constructed look pretty great and all comes together to give this world of sense of both closeness and breadth.
The music for this film is by Lin-Manuel Miranda and you’d think that would be a terrible idea considering how far removed the subject matter of this film is from Hamilton. But much like the Lopezes, this isn’t going to be Miranda’s last movie with Disney. These songs are pretty great! From “Where You Are” to “You’re Welcome”, this is a pretty solid soundtrack. Even “Know Who You Are” which is arguably misplaced in the film is quite good. I would say the weaker of the songs is “Shiny” the typical outlier thematically with the rest of the music. But the highlights are “I Am Moana” which is especially nice, “We Know the Way” which is really catchy and sung by Miranda himself, and “How Far I’ll Go” which I’m calling it, has a lock on this year’s Best Original Song. It’s in that same vein of powerful, character-driven songs that made “Let It Go” such a sensation, and though it doesn’t have quite the weight, character exploration, and infectiousness of that, it is really terrific. And it’s sung by Cravalho so well! It’s unbelievable she was picked from obscurity, this is one talented young girl! All her singing is on point, even Dwayne Johnson’s is. The music is enough to remind you this is a Disney film but also has its own rhythm inspired by its material. In short, this soundtrack’s probably going to be a hot Christmas item.
I think the best compliment that can be paid to Moana is that it’s a wonderful love letter to Hawaiian/Polynesian folklore. It treats the mythos with the grandness it deserves, gives the culture a romanticism while still remaining human, and crafts a story worthy of it’s rich history. Characterized additionally by a great protagonist voiced by an amazing rising talent, a plethora of stunning animation, and surprisingly fantastic music, it would be one of the great Disney movies if not for some poor clichés and comedic failings. However it’s proof positive that Disney’s still the reigning titan of animated cinema, and they’re not slowing down.
Moana’s a pretty great film to conclude Disney Sundays on. And you know what, overall it’s been great! Sure Disney has given us mediocre and disappointing movies, and a handful that are outright bad; but they have also produced tons of memorable timeless films that are among the best in animation. Animated movies wouldn’t even exist if not for Disney! Disney’s legacy will never die and now it seems they’re doing better than ever. They’re a media empire that’s continually growing but haven’t forgotten their roots. Movies like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Moana make it hard to deny Disney’s currently the best in the industry. This past year I’ve had the chance to re-watch classics of my childhood as well see for the first time a few really good ones that had eluded me. Many of them stand the test of time and are just as enjoyable for adults as they are for children. The magic and wonder hasn’t died. Despite some bumps in the road, it’s been a wonderful experience and maybe I’ll do it again. I think Pixar’s the natural successor. One thing’s for sure, this series has restored my confidence in a studio that let’s be honest, we’ve all been a bit cynical about. But regardless of the tropes and formulas, we can’t help but love Disney, what it meant to us as children, and maybe even more so what it means as adults. That is, a purveyor of glorious, imaginative entertainment that will forever impact us in ways no other films can. Disney’s continuing to meet and surpass expectations and the future is looking bright as ever for the Mouse. And I have to say, I’m very excited by the possibilities.