4.5 out of 5 stars.
Walt Disney Feature Animation has had a remarkable past several years, turning out amazing film after amazing film, from the cultural phenomenon “Frozen” to the record-breaking hit of this spring, “Zootopia.” But even among such illustrious titles, “Moana” may be the studio’s crowning achievement of this era.
“Moana,” which is directed by Disney giants Ron Clements and John Musker, is set on the Polynesian island of Motunui. The opening scene tells us of the goddess Te Fiti, who created all life but whose heart was stolen by the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), only for him to lose it in the ocean after confronting a lava monster, Ta Ka. As a result, conditions on the ocean gradually worsen.
The film then fast forwards a thousand years or so, where we are introduced to Moana (Auli’I Cravalho), a young girl whose father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) is the leader of the people of Motunui. Moana is supposed to inherit the role of Chief, but she constantly feels pulled to the ocean, which her father warns her to stay away from because it is dangerous. But when it becomes apparent that the only way to save their island from the darkness is to venture beyond the reef and return the heart of Te Fiti to its rightful owner, Moana seizes the opportunity despite her inexperience, recruiting a reluctant Maui along the way.
“Moana” is the next in line in the grand Disney tradition of animated musicals, and it does not disappoint in that category. The songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina, as well as Mancina’s accompanying score, are catchy and beautiful but also authentic representations of the Polynesian culture portrayed in the film. Even the choreography is stunning; these aren’t exactly huge musical numbers, but we are given further glances into the culture with the inclusion of some island dances—a culture that beforehand has been woefully underrepresented in film.
“Moana” could also be called a Disney princess movie, but not so much in the traditional sense. Moana is always referred to as a chief, not a princess (Except for one part in which, after vehemently denying that she’s a princess, Maui tells her, “If you’re wearing a dress and have an animal sidekick, then you’re a princess.”) But terminology aside, Moana is the sort of heroine we don’t see enough of not just in Disney movies, but in film in general. She’s not a damsel, but she’s also not fearless; she’s a pretty cool action hero, but she also isn’t automatically good at everything. Everything in this story takes time, from learning to sail to outsmarting Ta Ka. In short: Moana is real. She’s authentic. She doesn’t have courage and confidence just because she was supposedly chosen by the ocean to go on this quest; she gains them throughout the film as she becomes more comfortable with herself and her task. And there’s no love story element that helps get her where she needs to be; she does it all on her own. Moana is a full-bodied character who grows throughout the film.
Moana is also enthusiastically voiced by delightful newcomer Cravalho, while Johnson makes it hard to imagine anyone else playing Maui. Maui is self-centered, but he’s also been disgraced by the mistakes he’s made in his past; like Moana, he goes on a journey to find himself. They are joined by your typical comic relief sidekicks, the incredibly dumb rooster Hei Hei (voiced by current Disney regular Alan Tudyk) and an adorable pig named Pua. The source of wisdom is Moana’s grandmother Tala (Rachel House), who keeps the voyager heritage of the people of Motunui alive even after everyone else has forgotten. She feeds Moana’s desire to explore, while also encouraging her to find herself. “Moana” also gives us a fun villain—and villain song—in the form of the blinged-out crab Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement). Even though he’s more of a side quest baddie than a main villain (a department this film is somewhat lacking in), Tamatoa is the sort of delightfully evil character we love to see in Disney movies.
But besides the lovely story the film tells, the most stunning aspect of “Moana” is the animation. This film represents not only Disney, but 3D animation, at its peak. The backgrounds are lush and colorful, the soft lighting adding a gorgeous glow to all the characters and environments. The intricate choreography of the characters in the music numbers and action sequences is a joy to watch, but its quieter moments are even more awe-inspiring; there are a lot of really well done, subtle movements that help express what the characters are feeling. Some of the animation in the film is also quite experimental, like the “You’re Welcome” number sung by Maui, in which the characters interact with cut-paper style elements. One of the most impressive aspects of the animation in “Moana,” however, involves Maui’s tattoos. Maui’s body is covered in tattoos that tell of his exploits, and they move across his body, one of them being a mini Maui that he talks to and who serves as his conscience of sorts. The tattoos were animated by Eric Goldberg, and the process of 2D animation presented on top of 3D animated characters is something unheard of, but it is beyond successful. In fact, the 2D animation is so great it equally rivals the rest of the film; it’s kind of amazing to see two different methods of animation working hand-in-hand.
The film’s plot gets a little muddled midway through, but it never loses sight of its main theme of discovery—not just the literal discovery of new lands, but the discovery of yourself, and who you’re meant to be. Maybe some of it is coincidental due to the time in our society that the film is being released in, but Moana is the sort of inspirational heroine we need to see now, and that hopefully we’ll see more of in the future.
Runtime: 103 minutes. Rated PG.