Moana is Disney Animation’s latest feature film, and the 56th in a long line of Disney features. The film has a Polynesian setting this time around, a nice departure from the usual European settings that Disney is famous for. Get your floral swimming shorts and paddle and I’ll meet you down on the beach for this review.
For centuries, the greatest sailors in the world masterfully navigated the vast Pacific, discovering the many islands of Oceania. But then, 3,000 years ago, their voyages stopped for a millennium—and no one knows exactly why. Moana is a sweeping, CG-animated feature film about an adventurous teenager who is inspired to leave the safety and security of her island, Motunui, on a daring journey to save her people. Inexplicably drawn to the ocean, Moana (Auliʻi Cravalho) convinces the mighty demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to join her mission, and he reluctantly helps her become a wayfinder like her ancestors who sailed before her. Together, they voyage across the open ocean on an action-packed adventure, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds, and along the way, Moana fulfills her quest and discovers the one thing she’s always sought: her own identity.
Moana’s directors, Ron Clements and John Musker have collaborated before on Disney productions, most notably Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog, so there’s a huge pedigree behind this film. The film was started back in 2009 when the directors read about the exploits of Maui. They were sent to several Polynesian nations to get a feel and understanding of the culture, and the film’s cultural authenticity was verified by a specially-created board.
The story itself went through many multiples of versions, even up until during production, and it’s a stronger tale for it. Moana herself is a strong, likeable, capable character, and it’s a brilliant new role model for girls. She’s played and voiced brilliantly, and judging from the few teenaged girls I know, she acts exactly to the trope. She’s not a monodimensional character, either, and has well-developed motivations for the things she does. In fact, Moana ends up doing most of the heavy lifting during the story, with Maui’s role being the sidekick, super powers aside. Maui starts out as a funny but unlikeable jerk, and is one of Moana’s biggest obstacles and stumbling blocks in the story. Naturally, it takes the duration of the film to redeem himself, but the real star of the film where he’s concerned is his living tattoo. Maui ends up having several hilarious monologues with his tattoos and somehow loses most of them. Interesting side-fact: the tattoos were animated using traditional hand-drawn methods, and then digitally painted onto Maui.
The voicework of both Auli’i and Dwayne is masterfully done, and you can see from some of the behind-the-scenes shots that there is a genuine gentle fondness between them. Auli’i’s voice, in particular, fits the role almost to a tee, and allegedly, her resemblance to the character of Moana is pure coincidence. Dwayne’s resemblance to Maui, however…is that still coincidence? One delightful, brilliant voice cast member is Jermaine Clement, one of the members of the excellent band Flight of the Conchords. His song, “Shiny”, is a hilarious number in the middle of the film, and definitely so stereotypical of Jermaine.
If you’re paying careful attention to the dialog, you’ll find the film wonderfully self-aware of the genre, both as an animated feature, a Disney feature, and as a film in a long line of “Disney princess films”. This, I believe, is part of what makes this film so funny. Moana’s pet chicken, Heihei (voiced by Alan Tudyk) is part of this, and serves no redeeming purpose. The dialog is, I feel, stronger for the self-awareness. Look out in particular for a brilliantly funny throwaway line from Maui about the nature of princesses.
Visually, the film is stunning, and water effects have certainly come a long way. The human characters are deeply expressive, believable, and fun to watch. While most of what you’ll see is water, there’s still plenty of landscape to be seen, especially in the early portions of the movie where we become acquainted with Moana’s home island. I previewed the 2D version of the film, so I can’t attest to the quality of the 3D version.
Because Moana is a musical in the vein of the highly-successful Frozen, you’ll be treated to several very catchy earwormy songs that explain character motivation. Many songs are performed in Tokulauan, a Polynesian language similar to Samoan (in fact, the word “moana” translates to “ocean” or “sea” in many Polynesian languages, including Hawai’ian, with which I’m a little familiar). I found this use of Takulauan added to the feeling of the film’s authenticity, and the foreign words didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the music. To be completely unfair, the opening song, “Tulou Tagaloa” is definitely no match for the rousing “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!” from The Lion King, but then I have an African bias. The main song, “How Far I’ll Go” is this year’s “Let It Go”, and I hope we’ll be hearing more of it on the radio. Interestingly, multiple Disney regions recorded their own version of the song using and promoting local artists. In South Africa’s case, the song is performed by Lira, and you can hear her version of this brilliant song below, which is played as the credits starts.
As has become tradition for these big features, a short film plays before the main attraction, and this time around it’s a cute six-minute affair called Inner Workings, showing the personified internal organs of a man who works a desk job for “Boring, Boring, & Glum”. The fight between the heart’s desire to be free and follow the emotions are at odds with the brain’s desire to fulfill the order of the day. It’s a delightful lesson that maybe more than a few of us adults could learn from. Here’s the trailer.
Overall, Moana is another big winner for Disney in this reviewer’s humble opinion. The story is funny, heartwarming, and charming, and the characters are both lovable and likeable. I enjoyed every moment of the film; the story-writing is tight and there are no extraneous, unnecessary bits here. As usual, this is true Disney magic at work here. If you mistakenly decide that it is not for you, you’ll be forgiven your lack of good judgement just once. Go watch it: it’s pure joy to experience.