*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*
No matter how excited we may be for Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Emma Watson in her perfect role, it’s sometimes hard to look at Disney’s upcoming releases and feel the same excitement that the Disney name once inspired in us. In the next few years, it seems that all of the movies we once loved are being remade – literally everything from Mulan to 101 Dalmatians to even Winnie the Pooh – and between remakes and the cinematic universes Disney has accumulated over the years (Marvel alone puts out two movies a year), it’s sometimes hard to remember why we loved Disney in the first place. Then they put out something like Moana – stunning visuals, catchy songs, a meaningful and creative tale – and we remember why we’ve always turned to them when we want to be told a story that makes our imaginations (and the little child inside of us) sing.
On the island of Motunui in Ancient Polynesia, the daughter of the Chief, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), finds herself drawn to the ocean that has interacted with her since she was a toddler. While her eccentric grandmother (Rachel House) encourages her love for the sea, her father and village only travel to the end of the reef and insist that Moana must focus her attention on the village she will someday be the chief of. When the crops begin to fail and the fish vanish from their shores, Moana sets off to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) who stole the heart of the life-giving goddess Te Fiti. If Moana and Maui can cross the ocean and avoid several dangerous monsters to replace the heart, all of the islands being destroyed can be healed, and Moana’s people can rediscover their place in the world.
I’ll admit it – I kinda miss the two-dimensional drawing style of Disney’s Golden Years. But oh my gosh, what they’ve done over the past few years with their computer-generated projects is by no means lesser, and Moana is perhaps the pinnacle of all that work and innovation. There is no sequence that is not absolutely breath-taking, with hours of work and imagination poured into it. From the movements of the ocean (both naturally and when it’s playing with baby Moana in one of the most adorable sequences I’ve seen all year) to the club-esque, black light-slathered cave of the evil crab Tamatoa, and even the detailing in the characters and costumes alone (you’ll notice that no character wears any clothing that they couldn’t make on their island, and come on, look at all of Maui’s awesome tattoos and tell me he’s not the best dressed of any of them), everything is stunning. Take it from the one who ended up losing a contact lens in the middle of the showing and still was blown away by everything on screen.
The story itself is also classic Disney, backed up by songs and vocals that are both exotic and catchy. Thanks to Hamilton alum Lin-Mauel Miranda, the songs sound like they belong in the past but at the same time are easy to sing along to and jam on a car trip (this coming from someone who has been listening to the soundtrack back to front for the last 3 drives home for breaks). The only song that might feel slightly out of place is “Shiny”, performed by Jemaine Clement as Tamatoa. The song was intended to be a tribute to fallen singer David Bowie (rest in peace), and in that respect it is fantastic. And it’s still plenty of fun to watch and sing along to. It just feels a little disconnected from the rest of the film and its native pieces. Maui’s song “You’re Welcome”is full of Miranda’s signature rap which is also slightly out of time, but the character himself seems to make it okay with his slight fourth-wall breaking (“When you do it with a bird, it’s called tweeting”) and greater-than-time place in the story.
My only real concern with Moana is with the actual character of Moana. This is nothing against Cravalho – she has a beautiful voice, and she breaths all the life into Moana that we could possibly want. The problem is that we’ve seen her before. Several times. It’s a trend right now to have strong female leads, of course, but the quirky, clumsy, “real” girls have been used in many of the recent Disney movies. Moana acts the same as Rapunzel, Anna, and Judy Hopps did before her, and despite everything else that she has to offer in terms of story and background, you can’t help but wonder if these girls have a convention every year on being a “new age” Disney princess. She does have plenty of fun characters to back her up though – Maui, while a little cliche, is an absolute joy, and Gramma Tala is the perfect spirit guide for just about anyone. I wish there had been more of Pua the pig though – Heihei the chicken (voiced by Alan Tudyk for some unknown reason, since he has no lines) isn’t nearly as cute to watch prance across the screen.
And, for anyone who wants to know if the film is at all true to the Polynesian heritage, check out this Buzzfeed article – though there were some doubts about Disney’s ability to be authentic, and there was a bit of a mix of cultures in the film, it seems that Disney has taken the culture of the Polynesian people to heart and expressed it the way it was meant to be shared.
4.5 / 5
We know the way to our local movie theater, we set a course to find these showings everywhere we roam!