Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
Screenwriter: Jared Bush
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Tudyk, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Scherzinger, Rachel House, Jemaine Clement
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Rated PG | 113 minutes
Release Date: November 23, 2016
These are trying times. With an unknown future ahead of us, there is no doubt in my mind that we will need more movies like Moana. Not in terms of just needing more animated features, even though I really do love those, but in terms of delivering a powerful message of searching for identity, female empowerment, never forgetting where you come from, and remembering that not only do princesses come in just more than one color and they too can do a man’s job as well.
Moana reminds us just how far Disney Animation has come, and with a great voice cast and some catchy tunes, it will be a film that is recognized for more than just its animation, but also for celebrating and honoring a culture. Just don’t forget to bring idiotic chicken along with you, because they are good for more than just a few laughs. My full review below.
The film centers on the title character, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), who is being groomed to become the island chief. While she accepts that responsibility, she feels that she is destined for greater things. In fact, the ocean is calling out to her as if she was destined to sail the seas. However, one of the rules of the island is to never sail beyond the reef. But the crops are dying and it’s becoming harder to fish for food. So Moana uses what she learned from her Grandma Tala (Rachel House) and voyages out beyond the reef to return the Heart of Tefiti in hopes that it will restore all life. Along the way, she finds the trickster demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who would rather be on his own adventures then help this little kid.
The relationship between the two is contentious, but it’s all in good fun. Moana is a no-nonsense teenager who isn’t interested in putting up with Maui’s antics. Every time the demigod has a chance to allude her, she is right there in his face. This goes to show just how strong the character is. Motivated by something other than a love interest, Moana breaking away from the generic Disney traditions of a Disney princess waiting around for love is a nice change of pace. As for Maui, he’s a rather flawed hero who is in search of his own identity. He hides behinds a shield of arrogance and tempestuous attitude. But with the help of Moana, he lowers that shield and is put on the path of rediscovering his lost identity.
The supporting cast also provides the film with an extra lift. Grandma Tala is the village elder, whose job is to be the “village crazy lady.” As meta as that sounds, her knowledge of the island’s history helps motivate Moana to bring out her inner voyager and save her island from decay. Along for this voyage is the scene-stealing Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), the village chicken idiot who is constantly getting himself into all sorts of trouble that generally leads up to some very exciting moments in the film. The cute Kakamora are deceptively cute, pirate coconuts who provide one of the film’s best moments.
That moment sees Moana, Maui, and Heihei in direct confrontation with the deadly sentient coconuts in a sequence that looks like it came straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s one of the most exhilarating scenes in the film, and will no doubt be one of the most talked-about sequences. But animation for the entire movie is top-notch. The lush greens in the vegetation have plenty of detail. The clear blue sky that hovers over Moana as she sails across the crystal blue waters on her tiny raft is simply breathtaking. Seeing as it comes from Clements and Musker, it’s no wonder Moana feels like it comes from the 90s.
Following traditionally hand-drawn animated films like The Little Mermaid, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog, Moana is Ron Clements and John Musker‘s first voyage into CGI animation. But it hardly looks like it. That’s because a lot of that has to do with their ability to tell a story, which was written by Jared Bush (Zootopia). Unlike the fairy tale classics, Moana relies on the stories that Clements, Musker, and the story team got from their various research trips to various islands of Polynesia and the collaboration of the Oceanic Story Trust, which is a group of Polynesians from all walks of life from historians, linguists, and elders, to tattoo artists, fisherman, and dancers. So the film has that signature Disney magic we’ve all come to love, but it also respects the history and culture with its authenticity.
Clements and Musker’s films are able to weave culture and heritage with a contemporary tale. In this case, Moana‘s theme is the “search for identity.” While Moana’s search is more linear as she is a young teenager looking for her own identity, the theme is twisted a bit for Maui as he is searching for his lost identity. But it’s how the two directors pay respect to the culture that helped inspire the film that is inspiring. It truly is an eye-opening experience to anyone who watches it as they are introduced to a culture that has such a rich history and is considered to be one of the best nautical explorers using stellar navigation without instruments.
While Disney is known for having a musical element in their films, there hasn’t been one as exciting and uplifting as Moana. From the talents of Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the music is a mix of hip-hop and jazz with a Polynesian twist. Johnson’s “You’re Welcome” seems a bit easy for the actor considering he doesn’t have much of a range. However, he manages to prove everyone wrong and surprisingly is able to keep up with the pace. In fact, you’ll catch yourself nodding your head and tapping your feet to the beat. Jemaine Clement provides his vocal talents to voice and sing as Tamatoa, a greedy giant crab who is more concerned with decorating his sparkling shell with treasures and various shiny trinkets. Which makes it all the more fitting that he sings the silly “Shiny.” But it is “How Far I’ll Go” that is definitely this year’s “Let’s It Go” as the young Cravalho – she sings too! – sings a powerful song that just oozes with inspiration and girl power.
And yes, there are a few nods to some of the studio’s earlier works that you should be looking out for just in case you have a wandering eye. These Easter eggs are fun, and I probably saw three of them. But I have a suspicion that there are a couple more that I missed. Just be sure to stick til the very end.
Though Moana draws inspiration from a few Disney hits that came before it, that doesn’t mean it is any less entertaining. Full of inspiring characters, great humor, respect to the Polynesian culture, and upbeat music, Moana is a cathartic escape during these trying times.