Media juggernaut Disney continues its dominance of the movie landscape with Moana. Does the film capture the Disney magic or does it just roll out with the tide?
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is a princess on a Pacific island and longs to leave her island and explore the world beyond the sea. Her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), demands that she stay on the island and fulfill her duties as his successor as leader to their people. Moana’s grandmother, Gramma Tala (Rachel House), on the other hand, encourages Moana to follow her heart. As a great darkness spreads to Moana’s island, the sea chooses her for a special task: find the exiled demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and have him return the Heart of Te Fiti to the goddess of the same name. A thousand years in the past, Maui stole the Heart, which is basically a magical gem, from Te Fiti in order to give humans the power of creation. This act led to Maui losing his magical fish hook, which allows him to shapeshift, and his exile. Maui is reluctant to help Moana, but once she agrees to help him find his fish hook, he comes along for the ride. Will Maui and Moana be able to work together and save Moana’s people?
With Moana, Disney has gone back to a formula that worked for them in the 1990s and they have released another full-fledged animated musical. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker have worked on past hits like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, with their last Disney film being The Princess and the Frog. The music and songs come from Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and current hot music hand Lin-Manuel Miranda. The combination of these talents, as well as the lengthy list of contributing writers, adds up to an absolutely delightful film. The songs are fun – the standout, by far is Johnson singing “You’re Welcome” – and the story and message are good. It’s also great to see Disney telling a story about Polynesian culture and people. They do so with respect and the history and legends are extremely interesting. This is what inclusion looks like. The movie isn’t perfect, though.
Aside from a great little twist in the third act, the story is a bit on the predictable side, but that’s to be expected from a Disney animated film. Also, as was the case in Finding Dory, there is an animal that is clearly mentally challenged that is exploited for cheap laughs. It’s troubling that this is becoming a thing with Disney. It is a little more forgivable in this film simply because the animals don’t talk like they do in Finding Dory, so with Moana, the filmmakers can get away with saying that Heihei is just a screwy chicken, but it’s a trend that I’d like to see them stop. There’s no need for a character like this or even obvious comic relief. Maui is funny enough on his own with his boasting and sarcasm, he doesn’t need any help. I also enjoyed Moana as a character. She’s a strong female character that doesn’t feel like she’s completely perfect – the perfect heroine is another troubling trend that is leaking into movies lately; audiences like characters with flaws and who have to struggle to succeed.
The cast does a great job here, but the bulk of the praise needs to go to newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as Moana, who is onscreen for practically the entire running time of the film. Not bad for her first film and she does a great job with the songs as well. Her chemistry with Johnson is fantastic and he’s no slouch in this film either. The Rock has become one of the most reliable stars in Hollywood these days and one of its most bankable talents. He’s also extremely likable and talented. He does an excellent job as Maui. He’s funny and you can tell that he’s all in for whatever the filmmakers throw at him. Hey, and he can even sing! Morrison and House are good in their roles, as is Nicole Scherzinger as Moana’s mother, Sina, but special mention has to go out to Jemaine Clement who gives a funny performance as the villain Tamatoa and sings on the Bowie-esque song, “Shiny.”
Overall, Moana is another great entry into the Disney princess film collection. It explores a culture that is largely ignored in Hollywood films and presents a strong female character who learns from her mistakes. Definitely check it out, though the 3D didn’t really do much for me, so save some money there.