Moana is a funny, heartfelt and richly-crafted hero’s journey adventure that effectively puts a Disney spin on Southern Pacific culture.
Young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) has yearned to sail beyond her home island of Motunui ever since she was a child, but her father Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison) forbids it – insisting that everything Moana needs to be a good chief to their people in the future, the island will provide. When Motunui’s natural resources begin to diminish and the local fish population dwindles to nothing, Moana realizes that the answer may lie with her grandmother Tala’s (Rachel House) stories about the mother island, Te Fiti – and how nature shifted out of balance, when Te Fiti’s “heart” was stolen by the demigod, Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a thousand years ago.
Upon learning that she and her family are actually descended from a long line of explorers who stopped sailing across the ocean after Maui’s misdeed, Moana sets out to find the demigod and restore the heart of Te Fiti, in order to save her people. That’s easier said that done though, as Moana soon finds herself on a journey that brings her face to face with a variety of obstacles – among them, an ocean that is difficult to navigate, a variety of creatures that would like to get their hands on the heart of the mother island, and a demigod who’s not all that impressed with the young woman whom the ocean has chosen to save the day.
The latest directorial effort from acclaimed Disney Animation filmmakers Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) – with Big Hero 6 duo Don Hall and Chris Williams serving as co-directors – Moana is yet another enchanting and imaginative adventure from Walt Disney Animation Studios that pushes the envelope for computer-animation and breathes fresh life into the Mouse House’s tried-and-true storytelling conventions. While Moana does adhere closely to the Disney animated musical “formula” in certain respects, it also manages to put a creative spin on those same tropes (and event subverts a few of them) with its well-researched take on Southern Pacific mythology.
Moana is based on a story attributed to several people (the film’s directors among them) and a script officially credited to Zootopia‘s Jared Bush (New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi wrote an early script draft too and receives a “Special Thanks” in the movie). Even with so many cooks in the kitchen, the film’s resulting narrative is a cohesive and inventive variation on the archetypical hero’s journey – one that also incorporates familiar elements from Disney animated princess movies past. As a result, Moana hits a number of predictable beats, both plot and character-oriented; yet at the same time, it both gives those familiar notes enough depth for them to have more emotional impact and tweaks certain over-used Disney cliches (see’s Moana lack of a love interest and attitude towards her role as a future ruler), in order to offer something more creative.
The animation style on Moana similarly mixes familiar techniques with innovation. Moana and the other humans in the film has a pretty distinct “Disney look” to them, but also have some of the more varied physical builds this side of Lilo & Stitch. There are shades of influence from filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s collective work too, where it concerns how Moana envisions the ocean as a literal character and the film’s exploration of themes about nature and living in harmony with the natural world, through its lush color palette and vivid portrayal of its Southern Pacific setting. Moana also offers some of the better action scenes in a Disney movie in recent memory, with the most memorable (and sure to be talked-about) one being a sequence that openly pays homage to Mad Max: Fury Road.
Moana herelf has many of the traits associated with the typical Disney heroine, but also has enough unique qualities (again, she her attitude about being a chief one day and how the ocean picks her to be the Chosen One) to stand apart from the rest of the crowd. The Moana character further benefits from the lively and charismatic vocal performance by Auli’i Cravalho, while the character of Maui similarly benefits from Dwayne Johnson’s comedic timing and dramatic sensibilities (as well as having more depth than many Disney sidekicks past). Moana songwriters Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina and Lin-Manuel Miranda deliver a number of catchy tunes and musical numbers here, but arguably none are as toe-tapping as Maui’s (and, in turn, The Rock’s) solo number, “You’re Welcome”.
While Moana features a handful of supporting villains rather than a major antagonist, perhaps the most memorable and entertaining baddie is that of the humongous crab, Tamatoa – who, in no small part because he is voiced by Jemaine Clement, delivers a fun and idiosyncratic villain song (“Shiny”) that is part Disney, part Flight of the Conchords. On the non-villain side: Temuera Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger are solid in their respective turns (and singing) as Moana’s parents, but the most meaningful relationship that Moana has, outside of that with Maui, is with her grandmother, Tala: a wizened mentor for the film’s’ heroine, brought to life with a delightful old cackle through the voice of Rachel House. Meanwhile, though he doesn’t really “talk”, Alan Tudyk as Moana’s comically dim-witted pet rooster Hei Hei is a scene-stealer in the movie.
Moana is a funny, heartfelt and richly-crafted hero’s journey adventure that effectively puts a Disney spin on Southern Pacific culture. It doesn’t break the mold for Disney’s animated films the way that Zootopia did earlier this year so much as it illustrates that the Mouse House’s formula is flexible and still works, so long as the execution is up to snuff. With its refreshingly inclusive casting and original narrative, Moana is another winning addition to the studio’s modern slate of animated offerings that the whole family can appreciate. The film is also screening with Disney Animation’s latest short, “Inner Workings”, in theaters – and for those who head out to see it: be sure and hang around through Moana‘s end credits.
As Maui would put it: you’re welcome.
Moana is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 103 minutes long and is Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.
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