Directed By: Ron Clements & John Musker
Release Date: November 23, 2016
Starring: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson
There's a sequence that occurs late in Moana where I realized that the film's titular character had already earned her spot among some of Disney's best characters over the last hour and a half. Abandoned, adrift on a damaged boat, and presented with the option of giving up on her quest and returning home, Moana instead steels herself to keep pushing forward alone, patching up her boat and putting to use all the lessons she'd learned up to that point about sailing to tackle what could quite possibly be a suicide mission on her part.
To call Moana a great addition to Disney's long list of princesses would almost be, in my eyes, a disservice to her character, as the fact that she's a princess really has no bearing on her development throughout the film, nor does the simple fact she's "a girl." Though the film breaks the fourth wall a bit via a few lines from the demigod Maui, who points out these things, neither her gender nor her status defines Moana or her goals. Manufactured conflicts like arranged marriages or themes of finding love present in past movies involving princesses are nowhere to be found in Moana, which instead wisely fixates on the idea of listening to that little voice in the back of your head whispering that the world is at your fingertips if only you dare to live a little and discover it for yourself.
From the start, Moana dreams of sailing beyond the reef around her home, the tropical island of Motunui, a paradise that the film never suggests is a bad place for Moana, who truly loves the people of the island - who love her back - and is torn between doing the "right" thing and staying to lead them and following her heart out beyond the sea. After coconut crops begin to wither and the fish supply seemingly vanishes, Moana sets out to solve the problem, which involves finding Maui and forcing him to return the heart of an island goddess named Te Fiti that he had stolen long ago, the negative consequences of which are beginning to be felt by Moana's people.
Without going too much further into narrative spoilers, Moana's adventure is filled with the expected level of wit, adventure, and emotional depth that has defined some of Disney Animation's best films, anchored by an excellent lead character unshackled from gender expectations. Moana - both the character and the film itself - is a breath of fresh air, and that's all you really need to know before I get any deeper with this review. Disney's on a hot streak this year; Moana is no exception, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it nab a win for Best Animated Feature when the time comes.
Not only is it a gorgeous film to look at, it's packed with some amazing touches absolutely dripping with Polynesian flavor and clever designs. From a Mad Max-like sequence involving coconut pirates to the way Maui's big "You're Welcome" song plays out, the film is always mixing it up visually, giving each new narrative stretch and song their own distinct appeal. It should be no surprise considering Disney Animation's unique output over the last few years that it's so good, but the animation behind Moana may be one of my favorites for its sheer vibrancy, and it deserves to be seen on the big screen, no doubt about it.
That same idea feeds into its music, which is split between composer Mark Mancina providing some great work and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa'i giving birth to some fantastic songs. There's nothing on a "Let it Go" level that has taken the world by storm, which is too bad, because the film has so much going for it. There's the incredible mood-setter "Where You Are," the soaring "We Know the Way," Maui's infectious "You're Welcome," and - my personal favorite - the beautiful "How Far I'll Go" and its various reprisals. I can't help but feel that these songs will stand the test of time, and hopefully people will latch onto them over the next week, because some of them more than deserve to reach the level of hype that Frozen's soundtrack received.
That said, there is one song that I didn't care for, the Jemaine Clement-led "Shiny," which isn't a knock against Clement or the dazzling animation bringing the performance to life. It's one piece of a larger sequence in which Moana and Maui travel into a realm of monsters known as Lalotai to retrieve the latter's power-giving fishhook from the clutches of Clement's bejeweled, over-sized monster crab, Tamatoa. Despite its necessity from a narrative perspective, the whole journey into the realm feels tonally off, with Tamatoa and his song a bit too at odds with the rest of the film, going on a bit long and throwing off the pacing of the whole thing, taking time away from spending more time developing Moana and Maui's friendship later on. I have a feeling most people won't notice nor care, but I can't help but mention it as being a personal sore spot in an otherwise smooth film that could've used some reevaluation.
When that's my biggest issue with the film, though, that's pretty admirable. Everything else the film does right more than makes up for it, and I can't end this pretty simple review without talking about Dwayne Johnson and newcomer Auli'i Cravalho. Johnson's one of those actors whose sheer charisma is unbelievable, elevating each and every film he's in simply by the fact you can see how much fun he's having. His role here is no exception, with Johnson bringing Maui to life in the way only he can. Maui is a highlight of the movie, existing almost like a Genie figure - though, admittedly, never coming close to hitting the iconic heights of Robin Williams' work in Aladdin - with the aforementioned fourth wall breaks, interactions with the tattoos on his own body, and personal arc that's easy to invest in, resulting in a perfect meeting between character and actor that adds much to the film.
It says a lot, then, that Cravalho comes out on top. Far and away, she's the film's most valuable asset; whether speaking or singing, she's absolutely wonderful, owning the movie and more than holding her own against the more tenured Johnson. This is Moana's journey, and the film never strays away from that, allowing Cravalho to shine from beginning to end. Whether she's tasked with lightening things up or tapping into the film's more emotional moments, she never stumbles, and for a first-time performance - let alone one in such a huge film - that's something that deserves all kinds of praise, especially considering that she almost didn't even audition for the film. Whatever's next for her, I'm looking forward to it, because this is a phenomenal first step into a much larger career should she choose to keep going.
There's no world in which Disney fans won't embrace Moana. It more than lives up to the quality we've come to expect from such a storied studio, and its subversion of the princess trope in its titular character's goals, arc, and personality is to be lauded. Despite its pacing issues, it's a film I can't help but wholeheartedly recommend to everyone for its charms, creativity, and optimism. The film's message - not about the importance of finding love but about the importance of simply finding yourself - is something that will resonate with kids and, hopefully, with those of us old enough to have forgotten what it was like to dream of bigger things. Like Moana herself, we should all listen to that voice daring us to set sail for the unknown, no matter how old we are or what others say, because it's never too late for an adventure that can remind us what it means to be alive, and on that notion alone, Moana is the type of film we can always use more of.
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