Director: Ron Clements, John Musker
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk, Nicole Scherzinger
2016 proved to be extra special for Disney fanatics as Moana is the second film from the Walt Disney Animation Studios this year following Zootopia. Both films are uniquely different proving Disney has no reason to slow down. If you grew up in the 90s during their renaissance period watching the likes of The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, or Hercules, Moana may just remind you of the traditional style you grew up on that shaped your love of their work. It feels all the more appropriate given the values that tradition and culture play on young Moana, voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho.
Like many Disney heroines that have come before, she’s a scrappy young girl with an independent spirit. She’s the daughter of the chief on Motunui Island who is poised to be the ruler of the land someday. There is a darkness sweeping over the island and resources are becoming scarce threating the lives of its residents. They live in dilemma, as they believe it is too dangerous to go beyond the reef. Moana may be young, but she is adventurous, as she wants to voyage out like her ancestors to see what may be beyond the reef in order to save her people. She is told by her wise Gramma Tala (House) to find the demigod and shape-shifter Maui (Johnson) and return a gem known as the heart of Te Fiti. Te Fiti was the original island and has now been long extinct.
Despite it being a CG animated film like so many are nowadays, Moana has the distinct look of the hand drawn films that I had mentioned earlier. That’s partly because directors Ron Clements and John Musker also wrote and directed Aladdin and The Little Mermaid and have brought back their distinct visual style and storytelling methods. In a way they are not trying to reinvent the wheel with a contemporary look like recent Disney films, Wreck-It Ralph or Big Hero 6. There’s a return to form for the Broadway inspired score thanks to Opetaia Foa’I, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manual Miranda. Miranda just swept the Tony’s with his record breaking Hamilton. If you’ve heard that music, you can clearly hear Miranda’s influence on many of the songs.
Moana carries on with Disney leaning away from making their main female characters the standard princess archetype. Maui does have a funny line where he tries to debunk this concept by telling her, “If you wear a dress, have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” Some of that may be true as Moana’s “friend” Heihei sneaks on board her raft when she sets out to find Maui. Heihei is a clueless rooster, and unlike many Disney sidekicks, he isn’t some sassy know-it-all. He doesn’t speak an audible word but clucks his way through many scenes thanks to Disney standby actor Alan Tudyk. It’s a refreshing turn for Disney as those sidekick characters can often run annoying. Heihei is too cute and too silly for that. As Maui, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson makes his Disney animated film debut. The character is practically shaped around the actor but in animated form. He can shift his eyebrows, flex his muscles, and be the outrageous comedic type. The character was originally designed with a different look but modeled after Johnson once he was cast and to adhere to the vision many native people have of the demigod Maui. While he may be a demigod, there are no romantic feelings between he and Moana. She has zero time for the standard dim-witted prince characters we have seen countless times before.
Moana has fun and adventurous moments along that way that put Moana, Maui, and Heihei in peril. They’re out in the middle of the ocean, so they are bound to run into some dangerous situations that test their bravery. At one point, they come face-to-face with an angry tribe of coconuts that seemed ripped out of Mad Max Fury Road. Kids won’t get that reference, but the adults may appreciate the influence. It should come as no surprise that the animation is breathtaking with specific attention toward keeping it true to the culture. All of the water and lava effects are quite realistic looking making them appear sharper than some live action movies. Parents may want to hold the hands of their wee little ones during the film’s climax with the lava monster.
While Moana doesn’t feel as revolutionary as other Disney films of late, it still works and will be widely successful. It has a charming fighter of a title character that will no doubt appeal to many of the young moviegoers who will watch the movie. It has the Pacific look of Lilo & Stitch, the importance of family and culture like The Lion King, and the humor of Hercules. It asks kids to think about their calling in life. It may even bring about conversations about their heritage and what aspects of their grandparents or great-grandparents culture could they adapt into their lives.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? While I prefer Zootopia, Moana is still a winner for Disney.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS
Click HERE for my interview with Marlon West, the head of effects animation on Moana