Moana (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Ron Clements & John Musker
Written by: Jared Bush
Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison & Jemaine Clement
Music: Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda & Opetaia Foa’i
Release Date: December 2nd 2016
With huge hits under their belt including ‘Tangled‘, ‘Wreck-It-Ralph‘, ‘Frozen‘, ‘Big Hero 6‘ and ‘Zootropolis‘ it’s pretty much a given right now that Walt Disney Animation Studios are undergoing a second renaissance, similar to their original renaissance starting with ‘The Little Mermaid‘ in 1989 and ending with ‘Tarzan‘ in 2000. After taking a backseat to Pixar and Dreamworks during the 2000s Disney are now back on top, both financially and critically and now and it’s not just in animation but with superhero movies, talking-animals movies and their numerous sub-divisions.
It’s easy to forget that Disney built their brand on their “Princess” iconography but with so many strings to their bow and so many other successful divisions has their original formula become antiquated? Well, we’re about to find out as ‘Moana‘ is the first attempt to capitalise on this branch since 2013’s ‘Frozen‘. With broadway icon Lin-Manuel Miranda writing the music, superstar Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho behind the microphones there’s a lot of promise with ‘Moana‘ but did ‘Frozen‘ close the book on Disney’s Princess brand or is there still magic to be found in these stories?
Young Moana Waialiki (Cravalho) is the chief’s daughter on the small idyllic island Motunui. She yearns for adventure on the seas but she understand that their island is safe and prosperous and that she will one day become the chief and will be responsible for her people. But she’s forced into action when the vegetation and fish they all use for food starts to die. Moana is chosen by the Ocean to return a gemstone to a remote island and she must find and convince the demigod Maui (Johnson) to assist her on her quest.
‘Moana‘ feels like a collage of previous Disney tropes and ideas. Whether it’s a female lead who wants to adventure and explore the world (‘Beauty and the Beast‘) but has a responsibility to her people (‘Pocahontas‘), adventures above and below the sea (‘The Little Mermaid’), a magical, powerful sidekick who can transform (‘Aladdin‘) etc. If you’re after a deconstruction of the Disney-Princess tropes like ‘Frozen‘ then you’re not going to get it with ‘Moana‘. Instead, you’re getting something more along the lines of ‘Tangled‘; a polished, effective interpretation of a formula that started in the 1930s and was refined in the 90s and ‘Moana‘ does a great job at keeping to that formula whilst also feeling visually unique in its own right.
Moana is a strong, multi-layered and conflicted character who fits the mould for a Disney Princess and you can see the influences of her on-screen predecessors. We’re not dealing with a Mary Sue or a comic-relief, incompetent lead. It’s a great middle-ground where Moana has a starting point where she wants to adventure but knows she has responsibilities, but is willing to put those on the line in order to save her people on the Polynesian island of Motunui. And while she’s clever, determined and resourceful, she still needs to learn how to sail and follow in the footsteps of her voyaging ancestors and that’s where Maui comes in.
Now, Maui may have the same role as the Genie in ‘Aladdin‘ but it’s actually in the details where he becomes the most interesting part of the movie and one of my favourite Disney animated characters in recent memories. See, Maui may be voiced by one of the most charismatic and likeable men on the planet but from a certain perspective Maui is the main villain of the movie (which makes sense because ‘Moana‘ is the first Disney movie since I don’t-even-remember-when to not have an outright, explicit villain). He’s the one who sets into motion the destruction of the world, he’s selfish, egotistical and tries whatever he can to get out of his personal responsibilities. It’s only because the Ocean and Moana force him that he takes on this adventure in the first place.
But as the movie progresses we learn more about Maui to show what motivates him and also learn about his backstory and his need to please people and be adored (which casts his introductory song “You’re Welcome” into an entirely new perspective and rewards repeat viewings). There’s also the great visual detail of him having full-body, sentient tattoos which tell stories of his achievements that he frequently interacts with and the film gets a lot of mileage out of the physical comedy potential. Speaking of comedy, one of the main intended sources of humour comes from Heihei, Moana’s pet chicken with a clear mental impairment. I think the movie was planning on subverting the cute animal sidekick by teasing Moana’s cute pet pig Pua at the beginning of the movie and then giving us a dumb chicken for the rest of the journey, but the subversion doesn’t work as intended since Heihei adds absolutely nothing to the plot or the story. Its not a cause or solution to any issues, it’s just there to be annoying and get laughs and be stupid for the sake of being stupid. It feels rather forced.
Though, just to clarify a point I made earlier, there are multiple villains of the movie but they’re mainly regulated to one-scene obstacles as opposed to a constant presense like Frollo, Gaston, Yzma or Mother Gothel. We have the powerful lava-monster Te Kā who Maui needs to overcome, the cute coconut pirates the Kakamora who get introduced in a homage to ‘Mad Max: Fury Road‘) (and also have a really funny chalk-face motif which is both adorable and threatening) and also the gargantuan Decorator crab Tamatoa voiced by Jemaine Clement.
Tamatoa gets the most screen-time out of the three and while as a character he’s not really entertaining, he’s visually arresting and a brilliant metaphor for Maui’s journey. He’s not only a representation of what could happen to Maui if he becomes obsessed with how he’s perceived by people, but he’s also a wonderful visual depiction of someone who is literally wearing their avarice on their shell and the fact that Maui rejects that ideal is proof that while he’s a flawed individual, he still has retained humanity. And while Tamatoa isn’t a great villain on the whole, it’s hard to deny that when he gleefully sings “You will DIE DIE DIE!” whilst throwing Maui across the room and slamming him to the ground that he can be rather scary.
But at its heart, ‘Moana‘ is a road/sea-trip movie and it lives or dies on the bond between Moana and Maui which is, for the most part, a strength of the film. It does open itself up to some issues later on into the movie when you have the inevitable 3rd act separation and it feels like their reunion later on has come without a lick of motivation or context. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a scene with just Maui from the 3rd act which motivates his behaviour that has been left on the cutting room floor. But it’s easy to gloss over issues like that when the highs in ‘Moana‘ are so high and satisfying. The emotional core of Moana’s journey, the relationship with her grandmother and the lessons she learns helps to ground the sea-faring journey into something much more personal. The theme of legacy and reincarnation are potent and while the film doesn’t escape the “you must do this because you are the chosen one” trap, it still feels emotionally true.
A lot of that comes out because of great visual story-telling, such as the design of the characters and the effective way the film incorporates flashbacks. ‘Moana‘ renders a gorgeous world (think of a photo-realistic “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker” overworld) with amazing water-animations and clever depictions of mythical creations like nature/lava monsters and the inhabitants of the Realm of Monsters. While the 3-D animation is about as great as you’d expect from a big-budget Disney Production, special mention must be given to the 2-D animated Maui tattoos from Eric Goldberg (who worked as an animator on ‘Hercules‘ and ‘The Emperor’s New Groove‘ and that experience shows).
But a big appeal of a Disney musical is…well, the music. Lin-Manuel Miranda (the writer of the hit-musical “Hamilton”) and Mark Mancina with Opetaia Foa’i (park of the Oceanic music group “Te Vaka”) collaborate to give us a fine musical score. We’ve got great catchy songs, soulful ballads and even some songs performed in the Samoan and Tokelauan languages. I’m not normally a fan of Disney “out there” adventure songs but this film’s version in “How Far I’ll Go” is definitely a highlight of the movie. “You’re Welcome” is a deliriously and smartly written kinda-villain song and “Shiny” is a creepy actual-villain song. Despite only being 14 years old at time of recording the audio, Moana’s voice actor Auli-i Cravalho has a breathtaking voice and if Disney want to capitalise on the ‘Moana‘-brand and do a live-action stage musical, they’d better move quick before Cravalho gets too old because you don’t find talented singers of this calibre that often. Also, while Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson isn’t a great singer, he throws himself into the role of Maui and is so endearing that he makes you forget about it.
‘Moana‘ is not a genre-reinventing revelation on the lines of ‘The Little Mermaid‘, ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ and arguably ‘Frozen‘, but it feels like a polished and refined version of the “Disney Princess” musical. It’s got great, solid characters at its centre, the visuals are arresting, it’s frequently funny and moving and the songs are great. It’s not a reinvention of everything you know and it’s not trying to be that. It’s trying to be a heart-warming buddy-adventure movie and it succeeds with flying colours, particularly with its characterisation of Maui. It’s a movie that aims at fans of the Disney musical and that audience will find their needs catered for and then some. This is an adventure well worth undertaking.
I give ‘Moana‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 2nd Feb 17