In their current quest to be more modern and culturally sensitive, Disney is once again turning to a lesser-known mythology for their latest animated fantasy-adventure movie. Moana is an adaptation of Pacific Island culture mythology, primarily revolving around demigod, Maui, a deity represented in many Pacific cultures, from Samoan to Tahitian to Hawaiian to Maori. Rather than be the main character however, this movie’s version of Maui is merely a companion to another strong, independent female protagonist to follow those of Tangled and Frozen, with original character, Moana being the actual driving force behind events.
Like Tangled and Frozen, Moana is another Disney flick that aspires to marry the recognizable convention of classic Disney with a more subversive, self-aware style, one for a more sophisticated modern audience of both children and adults. Also like Tangled and Frozen, Moana is another outstanding animated hit for the House of Mouse, being the latest home run in a legendary hot streak that Disney has maintained throughout almost the entirety of 2016. There was just a bit more nuance to Disney’s previous animation champion, Zootopia from this past March, but Moana is nonetheless an immensely entertaining, impeccably charming adventure that audiences of all ages won’t want to miss!
Moana herself is another free-spirited and independent female protagonist for Disney that tries to put a more forward-thinking spin on the ‘Disney Princess’ line. The movie even takes this a step further by deliberately inserting a few lines into dialogue that directly attack the notion of Moana being a traditional Disney Princess, since Moana doesn’t have any kind of love interest, nor does she ever bring up romance at any point during the movie. One thing that immediately sets Moana apart from the pack is that it’s Disney’s first ‘Disney Princess’-themed movie without one single iota of romance in it. In this case, it’s all about the adventure, making Moana as much a Disney hero as she is a so-called ‘Disney Princess’, even more so than Rapunzel, Anna or Elsa.
Even if there are some borrowed elements of Moana being a Disney Princess that wants more out of her mundane life and longs for adventure though, Moana is a very distinct character that quickly and effectively forges her own identity, even beyond not having any defined romance or sexuality in this movie. A lot of this is due to the excellent lead performance of newcomer, Auli’i Cravalho, whose own Hawaiian background adds a great touch of authenticity to Moana’s voice and personality. Moana is a character with tons of heart, who is acknowledged to be in over her head in her desire to single-handedly save her village and be a hero, but throughout the movie, her journey from wanting to be a hero to actually learning how to become one is one that is clearly defined, and very satisfying to see unfold.
Of course, the veteran touch of Dwayne Johnson as Maui also helps to make Moana all the more entertaining. Cravalho and Johnson play wonderfully off of each other, even in animation, and as Johnson has deftly proven able to do with the kid-friendly movies he’s done in the past, he demonstrates an incredible commitment to this role. As much as Johnson plays a lot of tough guys in movies, it’s also easy to get the sense that he’s sort of a big kid in real life, and that greatly works to his benefit as Maui, a tough, if arrogant hero that also has sort of a goofy, oblivious innocence to him. Maui is childish, but also courageous when the situation calls for it, and his condescension clashing with Moana’s heart makes them an effective, if unlikely team.
In fact, Moana is almost entirely carried by Moana and Maui exclusively. This is a movie with a very small, carefully-chosen cast, with Moana’s journey unfolding in something of a road trip style on the ocean that takes her to various destinations, each with a new batch of eccentric characters and obstacles. You do meet Moana’s family at the start of the movie, which includes her cautious father, Tui, voiced by Temuera Morrison, who predictably doesn’t approve of Moana’s desire for adventure, but is given a surprisingly relatable reason for doing so, rather than just assuming his daughter is weak and helpless, when he clearly knows better. Moana’s grandmother, Tala, voiced by Rachel House, also has a sizable bearing on proceedings, being the other side of Moana’s roots that urges her to embrace her sense of adventure. Tala is the one family member that seems to spiritually follow Moana throughout the story, and provides a great link to Moana’s origins, even when Moana’s family is almost never seen again past the first act.
Considering that this movie has a road trip style, there are some characters that simply serve to add memorable stops, like I said, with one of the biggest passing personalities being Jemaine Clement as Tamatoa, an old nemesis of Maui’s, who I can’t spoil the details on, but rest assured that his scene is standout. Alan Tudyk also comes along in providing the vocal effects for Moana’s animal companion, Heihei, a comically unintelligent stowaway rooster that is mostly just gag fodder, but is used judiciously and to the movie’s benefit. The ocean itself is even a character in its own right sometimes, as a key macguffin in Moana’s possession allows her to channel the heart of the ocean, making the water sometimes manifest as its own personality that helps Moana along with a subtle touch, though rarely drawing attention to itself as a Deus Ex Machina device. Even when it does come off as a Deus Ex Machina, the movie wisely and effectively plays these moments for self-aware laughs as well.
The fact that even the ocean itself becomes a memorable and lovable character in its own right is a huge testament to how superb the character writing is in Moana. Even with a small cast that has some characters restricted to a single scene, there’s never any personality that feels out-of-place or poorly-realized. This is a movie that is packed with heart and charm throughout, and you’re bound to adore every face in it!
The foundation of Moana represents a pretty simple story. This is a story about a young woman who wants to achieve independence and validation, despite not fitting in to her village’s idea of ascending to responsibility, and in the process, she becomes the last hope for her world, when it becomes threatened by a dark force. Disney has done storylines like this before, with The Little Mermaid especially coming to mind as having a very similar story foundation as Moana, but the clever and lovable execution nonetheless makes this story stand apart, even when it’s simply about Moana needing to return a magic stone to a faraway island, and enlisting the help of the demigod, Maui to do it.
The plot of this movie is very straightforward, but it’s also a fantastic testament to less being more in even a large-scale animated movie at times. Moana always keeps its destination firmly in its sights, but it does just enough to flesh out the adventure and add lots of memorable, enjoyable stops, without feeling like it’s just wasting time. Even the very little stretch of time spent at Moana’s home with her family is done very smartly, with just the right amount of runtime spent providing the foundation for Moana’s character, before she sets out on her own (Maui and Heihei excluded), for almost the entire movie afterward.
The only slight issue with this otherwise superb storyline is that the climax and resolution are a tad rushed. Once Moana faces her biggest obstacle and has to make that final stretch to accomplishing her mission, the rest of the movie very quickly goes through the final motions to get to the credits, and it is a bit disappointing that the spectacular climax and heartfelt ending feel rather hurried. That’s pretty minor in the end though, and the rest of the adventure is paced pretty much perfectly.
Moana is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, with co-direction by Don Hall and Chris Williams, with Clements and Musker both being former directors of several of Disney’s 2D-animated movies, such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. All involved directors do a sublime job with the final product of Moana as well, in terms of both its presentation and its story content. Both visually and thematically, Moana nails every emotion it strives to elicit, whether that’s humour, drama, or whatever else each scene calls for. This is a movie that you can easily laugh along with just as much as you can tear up at its most heartfelt moments.
There is also an enormous amount of charm behind this movie’s animation and style. The sense of character is captured very well in the movie’s cute, but grand presentation, and Moana has all of the expected huge amounts of Disney polish present and accounted for in its presentation. Clements, Musker and their co-directors direct each scene with enough of an element of realism to make everything feel like it comes from a real place, yet also with the appropriate amount of style and exaggerated mannerisms to make the most of the animation. This leads to a very exceptionally produced final product, whereupon Moana provides another superb hallmark for Disney’s modern animated movie projects.
Another particular strength behind Moana is it outstanding soundtrack, both the instrumental compositions, and the musical numbers that unfold at set points during the adventure. Like Tangled and Frozen, Moana occasionally injects classically-styled Disney songs into the production, and all of them are pretty sublime. Whether it’s Dwayne Johnson’s super-catchy performance of, “You’re Welcome”, or Auli’i Cravalho’s emotional, gripping performance of, “How Far I’ll Go”, every song in the movie is a winner, and you’re bound to be humming many of them long after you’ve left the theatre. The instrumental score by Mark Mancina is of course no slouch either, balancing a sharp sense of fun with a potent sense of high adventure, and nicely complementing all of the interesting stops on Moana’s journey with exceptional musical backing.
The rest of the audio work is similarly very well-realized, though the sound is dampened enough to avoid frightening children, even during the handful of more perilous scenes. There is still a great sense of realism and scale to the sound effects despite that however, which effectively brings audiences into Moana’s quest, without sacrificing the family-friendly appeal. Some of the best audio work is naturally saved for the climax, which unfolds against a massive lava monster called Te Ka, and this is likely where Moana becomes its most tense. Even then though, Moana is a movie almost completely devoid of actual violence, but it nonetheless compensates for that with smart audio that still delivers plenty of excitement to an adventure that’s just as enjoyable for kids as it is for adults.
Being a high-profile animated Disney movie, Moana boasts some really excellent animation throughout. The water effects in the movie are particularly superb, both in terms of feeling believable, and in terms of giving the ocean its own appealing character identity. There’s also a lot of standout flourishes with lighting, colour and other such visual touches, making Moana’s world very vibrant and impossible to take your eyes off of. Finally, character details such as the hair on Moana and Maui, and the feathers on Heihei, are also done remarkably well, with the rest of the character designs feeling memorable, while also being very true to the style of Pacific Island mythology.
Moana also comes with the option of viewing the movie in 3D, and for the most part, the 3D presentation is fairly good, if not exemplary. There aren’t too many noticeable 3D effects in the movie, but there is a noticeable degree of added atmosphere, especially in the scenes on the open ocean, where the 3D adds a grander sense of scale to the vast sea that Moana and Maui sail upon. There isn’t too much lost if you prefer to just see the movie in 2D, since Moana is still very well-animated and visually appealing when you just watch it flat, but if you happen to like 3D movies, the heightened atmosphere is enough to justify springing for a 3D ticket. Either way, you’re getting a very well-polished movie that contributes yet more visual splendour to a year that has already seen an almost universally standout catalogue of animated movies up to this point.
Moana keeps Disney’s modern renaissance of new animated classics going strong, presenting another high-quality animated adventure that is emotional and enjoyable from start to finish. Complementing a movie that is so entertaining and memorable is a sublime presentation to go with that, between gorgeous animation and an excellent soundtrack that is full of catchy, fun original songs. This has been a fantastic November for movies for the most part, and Moana is yet another cinematic gem to add to the roster!
Again, Zootopia had a bit of extra depth, but there’s still something to be said about how well Moana maximizes the appeal of its simple concept. There are a few familiar notes for Disney in the latest grand journey of a young woman who craves more out of life, but the vast majority of the experience is very novel and very satisfying for both children and adults. It’s also worth noting the obvious goodwill of Disney effectively spotlighting the lesser-known mythology of a lesser-recognized culture in Moana, and making it the backbone of such a fun, emotionally gratifying big screen journey. Whether you view her as a Disney Princess, a Disney hero, or both, Moana is sure to join the growing pantheon of Disney’s most beloved heroines, and her grand adventure is one that is bound to live on in the hearts of audiences everywhere!
- Exceptionally lovable personalities with standout vocal performances
- Very entertaining, well-directed storyline
- Beautiful animation and highly enjoyable songs
- Climax and ending feel a tad rushed