Film Review – Moana
In Disney’s Moana (2016), a precocious young daughter of a Polynesian chief takes it upon herself to travel out into the ocean to save her people. Legend has it that centuries earlier, a powerful demigod stole a magical stone known as the Heart of Te Fiti from its rightful island home. Te Fiti is the name of the island and the goddess of the Earth who breathes life into all things. Without the Heart, death and decay has slowly made its way through the ocean, with the young woman’s home as its next target. The only way to restore the balance of life is to travel out into unknown waters and convince the demigod to return the Heart back to its rightful place.
What the writer (Jared Bush) and directors (Ron Clements/Don Hall/John Musker/Chris Williams) do very well in Disney’s latest animated adventure is incorporate a strong sense of culture and mythology. They allow Polynesian legends and traditions to seep into every detail. There’s weight and importance in how every character moves, speaks, and looks. This is the first time where we see animated characters in full body tattoos, each one significant to that person’s life. But while this is geared from a specific people, it isn’t so far detached for general audiences that the themes become lost in translation. Like many stories about a hero/heroine, this is very much about a character having the courage to step out of their comfort zone to see how far they can go.
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) exhibits these traits from the beginning. Unlike other children her age, she doesn’t shy away from scary stories about the world outside of her little island. She longs to go out and explore – she has the heart of an adventurer, despite the protests of her chief father Tui (Temuera Morrison). When her island of Motunui no longer is able to harvest edible food, Moana does what she feels is right: taking a small canoe and traveling beyond the reef to find the demigod Maui, the one responsible for stealing the Heart of Te Fiti.
As a character, Moana exhibits the usual traits we would see in a protagonist. She’s determined but unsure, she knows what her goal is but doesn’t know how to reach it. Like most young people, she has grand ideas but not the maturity to see the process. Foolishly, she sets off on her adventure without being an experienced sailor. Most of her experience is done through trial and error. This is where she’s most interesting, trying to work things out and stumbling along the way. One of her more endearing traits is the way she practices what she’s going to say when she meets Maui, and how she’s going to convince him to team up with her. Heroes are bland when they’re simply heroic; it’s when they have doubts and fears that make them more relatable, more human. Moana is that without question.
Maui (Dwayne Johnson) might be an even better character. With his large body, wide face, long hair, and a body completely covered in tattoos, Maui is a person we’ve never seen from Disney before. He’s brash and egocentric, completely willing to taut his great victories and contributions to the world. With his magical hook, Maui can transform into different animals, most preferably a powerful hawk. It’s his narcissism that makes him unique. At first, Maui has no interest in helping Moana. In fact, he goes so far as to leave her for dead at certain points (the narrative works around this by making the ocean a living, breathing thing, tossing Moana back on to the canoe whenever she falls in). Maui has the largest emotional arc, as Moana slowly chips away at him to find his compassionate side. The two make a nice tag team whether they are foils or friends, and the voice work by Cravalho and Johnson provide plenty of energy.
The animation and character design are yet another noteworthy accomplishment. Pixar better take notice: Disney Animation Studios may not have surpassed them in terms of sustained success, but they have come close (if not equal) to recent stand out quality. From the island environments, to the movement of the water, even Moana and Maui’s hair have a tangible authenticity. One clever bit is Maui’s tattoos, and how it shifts and changes with every adventure he undertakes. The tattoos are alive, acting as a companion instead of decorations. How strange, that something that was considered taboo decades ago have become so familiar and accepted that it can now be a featured element in a family friendly picture.
The music stands out as a contrast between some of the best Disney has produced in awhile to some of its most forgettable. Maui’s main theme “You’re Welcome” is a reflection of his vanity. While it’s fun and Dwayne Johnson tries his best to give some flair in his singing, it doesn’t really stick very well. Even worse is Jemaine Clement’s “Shiny.” As a villain’s song, it stands out badly from the rest, as though it belongs in another movie. In fact, the entire scene it’s featured in (where Moana and Maui battle a giant crab) just felt out of place and awkward. However, the production made up for these missteps with the central piece “How Far I’ll Go” about having the strength to follow one’s true calling. It’s an appropriate message for Moana, and is repeated throughout. “We Know The Way,” performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i, is emotionally stirring with its rhythmic drumming and melodic chanting, and should have been the central song. It’s comparable to “Circle of Life” from The Lion King (1994), it’s that good. The fact that it’s so short (barely two and half minutes) and comes in the second act proves to be a missed opportunity to make this one of Disney’s classic songs.
Moana is bright and colorful. It never drags (even through some of the less than stellar songs), and it opens us up to a familiar story through folklore that hasn’t been seen on screen that often. People can poke fun at the “Disney Machine” all they want, but when they’re on their game they’re on their game.