Review: Moana (2016)

We’re living in crazy times. Who knew that after the first few films from Disney’s in-house animation studio that honestly weren’t the greatest, that I would come to like some of them even more than PIXAR’s most recent output (Finding Dory & The Good Dinosaur). I’d stack the creativity and world-building on display in Zootopia and Wreck-It-Ralph against most any animated feature I’ve ever watched, and of course, there’s Frozen with its classic soundtrack and clever subversions of “princess” tropes. Each of those three films preface Moana and inform it in a strange way, and yet, its own distinctions make it an experience all its own. As much as the film embraces the histories of a largely unaddressed Polynesian culture, Moana feels incredibly brave as a distinct entry within Disney history as well. That alone should be as refreshing and welcoming to audiences as the sight of the beautiful world cteated on screen.

In an effort to give only as much info as the trailers, Moana is named for the main character, a young Polynesian princess, set to succeed her father as ruler of her people. Ruling has its difficulties, as does living on an island recently stricken with encroaching pestilence. Tradition locks the people to not journey out on the waters, and that applies even to the ruler-to-be. Still, you can’t have a hero’s journey without a *ahem* journey, so we sail the open seas with Moana, as she seeks the only one who can help make things right: Maui, the shapeshifting demi-god who, centuries prior, caused her island’s current predicament by stealing a pounamu stone, the heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess responsible for bringing the islands up from the sea. He disappeared after doing this as he was struck by Te Ka, a great lava monster; the encounter also scattered the stone and Maui’s source of power, his giant mystical fish hook. Moana, then, has a tall order of finding and enabling Maui to help her set things right.

First off, major kudos to Disney for largely sticking to an “authentic” cast. The cast is filled with great talent, but you may not recognize many of the names because most are largely unknown (still, Star Wars fans better remember Temuera “Jango Fett” Morrison). Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho absolutely owns the role of Moana, displaying an authenticity through both word and song. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson may not always be your cup of tea as an actor, but he is perfect for Maui, a character greatly informed by Johnson’s mannerisms and charm. His shspeshifting powers are a sight to behold, but evenmoreso, I can see audiences being wrapped up in the comaraderie built between Moana and Maui. There are animal sidekicks in the film, but they really are only comic relief and little more. Still, they don’t get in the way, which is a good thing.

For a film centered around islands and the ocean, water must be convincing, and here we are treated to it also as a character. We’ve come a long way since the 80s James Caeron film, The Abyss. What was crudely affective there is now perfected and fluid (no pu…sorry, yes, the pun is real). The best effects are often said to be those unnoticed, and I completely bought in on the visuals. I’m not saying they’re unnoteworthy; rather, I don’t see the seams. Stunning is a term overused, but it is appropriate here. This film may be the closest many get to experiencing an island paradise; in that regard, it definitely does the job from beginning to end.

With films of the “Disney princess” variety, music is key, and the filmmakers went for the newly admired Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame. The Polynesian cultural influence shows through most tracks, and overall, it’s hum-worthy, which is winning half the battle. Are they true classics? Time will tell. Many songs felt deeply intertwined with the plot of the film, so hearing them in years to come outside the context of the film may not happen. Still, within the film, most work and work well. One song (and entire sequence) “Shiny” stood out like a sore-thumb to me, slowing the film down, but some may be fond of it.

I don’t want to venture any further without addressing the film’s greatest merit. Disney princesses have existed for decades, but as of late, the old tropes have come under criticism (many of which are justifiable). Still, in all that history, those sovereign never ruled or exercised any real governing authority over people. This is the first “princess movie” I can remember that showed a royal actually leading and making decisions. The resulting investment those interactions brought did wonders in my connection with Moana, as both a character and film. We don’t just hear that she wants the best for her people; we clearly understand that she does, because we’ve witnessed her choices along the way. Moana is empowered, not just in some token way through saying it is so; no, we witness her journey and feel it. She uses her mind, strength, and will to get her (and Maui) out of many predicaments, and I heard audiences (especially women) cheer for her during the film.

Content-wise, there is only the implication of language (Moana shouts “Son Of A…”). Refreshingly, there’s no shoehorned-in love story of any kind. Moana is just fine with who she is, independent as a ruler. While it sounds graphic to mention decapitation or loss of limb, each is handled stylistically, and they probably go unnoticed to audiences. You should be perfectly fine watching this film with others of any age, unless there are worries about the pantheism taken as fact on display. If anything, it should give families the opportunity to discuss as a family what each believes. While the views you hold may likely differ from those in Moana, everything shown in the film serves the story, so take it as only that, and enjoy. Some will never see past the pantheistic trappings, but they are missing out on a tale that shows the rise of a young leader, the redemption of one who had fell from grace, forgiveness, and the power a heart can have for good or bad. There is truly a lot of thematic material to enjoy for all.

Overall, Disney has another success: visually, musically, and message-wise with the young, empowering lead. I very much enjoyed the film that, like Zootopia and Wreck-It-Ralph, centers on a strong, unlikely duo, and, like Frozen, subverts the expectations of what a “princess” can be. There are genuine laughs and emotions to be felt here, and even though the runtime is longer than many animated Disney films, it flies by. That must mean we were having fun, and I felt Moana has that fun in bulk. Don’t miss out!

Score: 8.5 (out of 10)

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