Moana (2016)

Disney has experienced a bit of a rejuvenation in their animated department in the last few years with the establishment of the Walt Disney Animation Studios banner, mostly in the wake of the line of demarcation between Disney and Pixar becoming incredibly blurred.  They’ve released ten films since their first film under that studio, Meet the Robinsons, with the most successful one being 2013’s Frozen.  Their tenth feature, following on the heels of this Zootopia, released this past spring, is Moana, which features original songs from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The film opens with a creation story centered around an island goddess named Te Fiti, who formed the land and gave the life that grew upon it.  She had a green stone that was her heart and was the source of her life giving ability.  A demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole it from her intending to give it to humans, only to be attacked almost immediately by Te Ka, a lava demon.  Te Ka’s attack caused the heart stone to be lost in the ocean and Maui to be separated from his magical hook, which gave him his powers.  All of this is relayed to a group of toddlers by and old woman named Gramma Tala (Rachel House) on a Polynesian island named Motunui.  The granddaughter of the storyteller, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), who is the daughter of the chief of the tribe, is captivated by the story.  She is destined to be the leader of her people after her father (Temeura Morrison), but is drawn to the ocean, even though her people are forbidden to go beyond the reef surrounding their island.  However, crops begin to die, fish begin to disappear, and coconuts begin to spoil; a sign according to her grandmother that Te Ka’s darkness is spreading across the seas.  Upon discovering a hidden secret about her people, and being chosen by the ocean, Moana sets out on a journey to find Maui, make him return the heart stone, and save her people.

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There is very little to dislike about this film.  Everything about it, from the visuals to the story, to the singing, to the voice acting is really outstanding.  Based on the early ticket sales, it seems unlikely to capture the kind of audience that Frozen did back in 2013 on its way to $400 million, but it is right behind it in terms of overall quality.  It features a story that is easily accessible for children of all ages, and engaging enough for adults to enjoy as well.  In fact, Moana’s adventure is a classic example of the hero’s journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell.

It features very catchy, enjoyable songs that, while written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, feel like they belong side by side with the modern classic Disney songs from The Little Mermaid and on; in particular, “How Far I’ll Go”, “You’re Welcome”, and “Shiny” stand out as the cream of the crop.  I suspect that “How Far I’ll Go” will be in the running for Oscar consideration as it is reprised several times throughout the film.  “You’re Welcome” is a entertaining number giving Johnson a chance to show off his musical chops.  “Shiny” pulls in no less than Jemaine Clement as a monster crab that made me wistful for Flight of the Conchords.

The film has received a lot of praise for female empowerment but it has also received some criticism for its depiction of Polynesian people.  I get that people want a certain level of authenticity and care for their culture, but at the end of the day this is a cartoon geared toward entertaining children.  There is a certain level of caricature and exaggeration of features with nearly any animated character in nearly every animated film.  People should not get needlessly hung up on these things and allow them to distract from the overall quality of the film, especially when there is a lack of intent on the part of the makers of the film.

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Also, the film looks incredible.  The quality of the picture is outstanding.  The animators of the film really deserve credit for making the film pop visually.  The villain that Moana and Maui have to face, Te Ka, really looks amazing as a creature made of lava.  Also, in a nice touch, the animators have added a hand-drawn character of sorts, one of Maui’s tattoos that is “alive” and moves around on his body, serving as a bit of comic relief and as Maui’s de facto conscience at times.  Another non-verbal character that they came up with is the ocean itself, which chooses Moana to return the stone, seeing a kind act she performs as a child and aiding her in her journey when she leaves her island.  The ocean is depicted similar to the “creature” in The Abyss and helps to guide Moana to Maui.

Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, is a demigod who can shape shift when he has his fishhook, which is the source of his power.  He is more than a little self-absorbed but also lacking in confidence at times, for reasons that are revealed in the backstory about his motivations.  Johnson is a perfect fit for this character, coming up through wrestling as a larger than life character in The Rock who oozed charisma and charmed audiences with his words and electric personality.  He was able to translate that into Hollywood success and has really refined it and streamlined it after a period where he was taking roles that weren’t exactly suited for him.  This voice role is right up his ally.  Maui at times comes off a bit like Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope, a character who is reluctant to play the role of hero and needs some prodding and massaging of his ego.  Basically, he needs to be lured into doing the right thing.  Johnson also works well off of Cravalho as Moana.

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Auli’i Cravahlo as Moana is the real highlight of this whole film.  Her vocal performance is the perfect example of how important voice acting is to an animated character and how the right voice can bring a character to life.  She gives Moana personality and energy in spades.  She can also really, really sing.  Not to dive too much into the female empowerment waters, but it is refreshing that there is no romantic interests for any of the characters involved, it’s just a straight up adventure that happens to have a female main character.  As a friend of mine said after seeing it with her two young girls, it “celebrates how brave, strong, and fearless girls can be.”  I appreciate most how the film never draws attention to that, it is an aspect of the film that it simply is.  Moana is on a journey as much about self-discovery as she is about finding Maui and returning the stone.

On top of that, her character arc is about more than just her self-discovery and her own journey.  It is also about her people.  There is the popular theme early on about Moana becoming chief and the responsibility and expectation of that role.  What is expected of her is at odds with what is in her heart and the desire she has to set off on the water.  As the film eventually lays out, though, there is a reason for that desire in her heart, which she finds by learning about the history of her people.  They have forgotten who they are as a people, and instead have chosen to live secluded on their island.  The pull of safety and isolation and comfort have caused them to forget what they are meant for.

The story is a little simplistic and straightforward and follows noticeable and familiar beats, but Moana excels as a tale of adventure and discovery.  It’s right up there with the best that Disney animation has produced in recent years.  The songs are catchy, the animation is vibrant, and the voice acting is superb.  It also features a cast of characters that look different than what is typically found in most films for mainstream audiences.  Moana is worthy of being discussed as one of the best animated films of the year.

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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