Moana Review

HOW FAR I’LL GO (I AM MOANA)


 

The Walt Disney Animated company has endured throughout the years, being one of the top rank studios to produce memorable hits with its signature cartoon feature releases. Whether deriving narratives from fairy tales, from various diverse cultures, or from lore and mythology, Disney’s animated films have a sense of timeless wonder to them, appealing to generations (young and old) since its first release (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) back in 1937. More often than some cartoon studio companies, Disney’s animated cannon has produced many memorable hits, including 2013’s ultra-mega-hit Frozen, which saw the studio returning to its celebrated identity of a faraway land, princesses, musical numbers, loveable characters, and an endearing story of a classic. Following the global success of their last big hit in Zootopia (not Disney’s signature style, but still incredibly awesome), Walt Disney Animated Studios, along with directors John Musker and Ron Clements, chart a course to the Polynesian South Pacific in Disney’s #56 animated tale Moana. Does this latest feature bring the company’s “old big screen magic” or is it a dazzling high-seas adventure flop?

THE STORY


Set in the South Pacific of islands, monsters, and the vastness of the ocean, the people of Motunui Island (a Maori island community) are by Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), who’s grooming his headstrong daughter, Moana (Auli’l Cravalho) for her eventual leadership, placing the emphasis on the need to remain on their home island and not to explore the world beyond the horizon. Longing to sail the open waters, but still respectful to her father, Moana tries to fulfill her duties as the chieftain’s daughter, but when island’s resources are running out, hit by a curse that was triggered long ago by the demigod’s Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who stole a mystical stone from the island goddess Te Fiti. With her grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), urging her to reach out into the unknown (like her ancestors before her), Moana hits the high seas with her absentminded pet rooster Hei-Hei, out to locate Maui and return the stone to its rightful owner. Upon meeting the shape-shifting demigod, Maui wants nothing to do with Moana, who is too self-absorbed with himself to see the young girl’s problems. However, after some convincing to find his massive fish hook (the source of his power), Maui joins up Moana and together chart a course to find reunite Te Fiti with her purloined stone, prepared to fight the titular lava monster Te Ka, who safeguards the goddess’s island.

 

THE GOOD / THE BAD


As I’ve said in my review for Zootopia, I’m a huge fan of all things Disney, especially their animated movies. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King, and many others were a big part of my childhood, fascinating me with intriguing cartoon tales of good and evil, colorful characters, and musical songs that I still hold dear in my memory. Though I’ve grown older (an adult now), I still hold Disney’s animated movies in high regard, cherishing these classic features, while embracing the new ones that they currently put out. As I’ve always said…” you’re never too old for a Disney movie”. Like many out critics and moviegoers out there, I loved Disney’s last feature film Zootopia for its great storytelling, colorful characters, and poignant social commentary message. Thus, I was excited to see where the illustrious animated studio would next with Moana, their newest film project. With its marketing campaign laid out for several months and all the inherit “buzz” surrounding it, I was definitely curious (or rather excited) to see how Moana will shape up with my uber-hyped expectations. Well, I can say that for certainty that Disney has done it again in delivering another solid animated tale, for Moana, much like Frozen, seems to embrace the company’s identity in wholesome cartoon storytelling of delightful characters, creative worlds, and lyrical songs.

Moana is directed by not one, but two directors with John Musker and Ron Clements helming Disney’s 56th animated feature. Both Musker and Clements are no strangers to Disney, having previously directed several of the animated tales such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet, and The Princess and the Frog. This, of course, strengthens Moana with the duo pretty well-versed in Disney’s moviemaking thought process and expectations for its viewers. While Disney signature style resurfaced in 2013’s Frozen, it was absent the following year with 2014’s Big Hero 6 (Disney cash-in on the superhero success in recent popular culture). With no movies released during the entire 2015 year (with the exception of Pixar’s Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur) and with Zootopia (Disney’s first 2016 release) finding its own groove and success, Moana represents the return to being signature style of princess, animal side characters, and whimsical songs. This must’ve been Disney’s reasoning for choosing Musker and Clements as the film’s directors as Moana is a prime example of Disney at its best, finding its trademark style and fully embracing it.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects found in Moana is in its presentation (or rather representation) in the story setting, choosing a rather unique layout for the feature’s backdrop. While some Disney animated movies (be it a Disney Princess story or classic fairy tale-ish yarn) are depicted in a very much European setting and topography (mostly a pseudo-medieval setting), Moana takes references of the South Pacific region of Polynesia and utilizes it’s in the film’s story. While Muskers and Clements tell the story of Moana and her adventure the demigod Maui, they also showcase the culture of Polynesians (with the people of Motunui represented as Maori descendant) from boat building (and design) to basket weaving, to gathering coconuts, to honoring their ancestors who came before them. I think it’s really cool idea and definitely works well (for both the movie’s main story and setting backdrop) as a viewer can easily tell that a lot of attention to detail and respectful of their culture was carefully crafted for Moana’s presentation. Speaking of presentation, the film is absolutely gorgeous, probably the best CG rendered movie in not just of Disney movies, but of all 2016 animated movies (well maybe not Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, but that’s whole different story). All the splashes of blue and greens in Mona are dazzling to see and the various tropical locales and vistas are incredible. It’s amazing to see how much detail is put into this movie, especially the scenes involving meticulous movement of water and character’s wet hair. The even made the ocean an actual character, aiding Moana here and there throughout the feature (the best one is at the film’s beginning when Moana is a toddler and interacts with the ocean). Even character designs are sharp and very creative looking from the people of the Motunui Island to various creatures and monsters (both large and small). All in all, Moana (visually speaking) is a beautiful sun-drenched paradise that will make you want to visit the South Pacific Island in real life.

Adding to its Polynesian culture, Moana’s music is also top-notch and worth noting. Moana has actually three songwriters for the film, which includes Opetaia Foa’I, Mark Mancina (Mancina’s also did the movie’s score), and Lin-Manuel Miranda (the music mind behind the smash-hit musical stage play Hamilton). These three definitely identify with Muskers and Clements notion of embracing the South Pacific Islands influence, especially in its film’s background music as well in the stirring song “We Know the Way”. And yet, Moana does venture into other musical avenues (beyond the Polynesian style), with the high-tempo and funny song “You’re Welcome” (something truly interesting to hear by just simply hearing “The Rock” sing in a Disney animated feature), and the comedic (yet slightly bizarre) song “Shiny”, which sort of has a David Bowie-esque feel to it.

Of course, one of the big songs in the movie focuses on Disney heroine (Moana), doing a musical number on how she wants to see more from the life she knows (think of “Belle” from Beauty and the Beasts, or “Part of Your World” from Little Mermaid, or “When will My Life Begin” from Tangled). The track “How Far I’ll Go” is a rousing song, filled with an empowering notion / message behind it and certainly fit beautifully in the movie. While it may not outshine Frozen’s “Let it Go”, Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” definitely comes close to it, playing several reprises throughout the film.

There are a couple of minor problems with Moana that, while still an excellent movie, need to be mentioned. As I above, Disney’s seems to recapture the formula of its “musical” features, which can be a repetitive for some (i.e. those seeking something new and refreshing from the studio). Moana certainly does that standard formula, calling upon the commonplace troupes found in Disney’s movies (headstrong lead character, loving / overbearing protective father, animal sidekick, numerous musical sequences, etc.). Thus, it would seem that Musker and Clements are calling upon their past Disney experiences in Moana, most notable with Little Mermaid , and maybe a little Princess and the Frog. In addition, while Disney’s past animated movies have (for the most part) some great villains / antagonist, Moana (unfortunately) comes up a bit empty-handed. Yes, there are some baddies in the movie for Moana and Maui to fight against, but none of them are truly memorable in comparison to past villains (Jafar, Scar, Ursula, Gaston, Maleficent, etc.). However, to me personally, this were just minor complaints and really didn’t hurt my overall enjoyment of watching Moana.

The voice cast in Moana is a solid one, with both newcomer Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson carrying most of the film with the two primary protagonist characters Moana and Maui. With the idea of using a Polynesian setting for the feature, Disney went to length to find the voice for Moana, choosing Cravalho, a Hawaiian native and Polynesian descent, over hundreds of other Polynesian women. To their credit, Disney selection was a stellar one as Cravalho is absolutely perfect for voicing Moana, a spirited and plucky sixteen-year-old heroine, handling all the wide range of emotions from serious, to cheeky, sadness, and all others in-between. What also strengthens Cravalho’s Moana is that the fact she can sing, which makes the song “How Far I’ll Go” that much more impactful. In short, Auli’i Cravalho is Moana….no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

What’s also interesting is that, despite Moana herself being a princess (a chieftain’s daughter), she doesn’t act like the other Disney’s Princesses of old. While, of course, sharing similar traits in the beginning (a young princess longing to travel beyond the world she knows), the character of Moana doesn’t need to be saved by a guy, or knight-in-shining armor, or prince.  In truth, there really is no emphasis nor really romantic love story in Moana, which is kind of a good thing as it would’ve “bogged” the story down in my opinion. Moana is smart, resourceful, and determined to complete her mission and save her people. She doesn’t have time to sing “Love is an Open Door” when she’s sailing around on the ocean. In short, the character of Moana is a very strong female (the new style of being a Disney Princess) and something that young female viewers will (hopefully) look up to.

Then there is Dwayne Johnson who plays the shape-shifting demigod Maui. Like Johnson in real life, Maui is a larger-than-life person and Johnson seems to relish the opportunity to play such a character. He brings with him all his charisma and comedic timing, giving Maui a lot of funny one-liners throughout the movie. It also helps that both Johnson and Cravalho have great chemistry with each other as their witty banter works incredibly well. Moana’s supporting casts is a small one, but proves effective in its range of voice talents that fit their respective characters. This includes Temuera Morrison as Moana’s father Chief Tui Waialiki, Rachel House as Moana’s crazy but spiritual grandmother Gramma Tala, Nicole Scherzinger as Moana’s mother Sina, and Flight of the Conchords star Jeamaine Clement as the greedy and huge villainous crab Tamatoa. Lastly, even though the character doesn’t particularly speak (despite being voiced by Alan Tudyk), I have to mention Moana’s stupidly hilarious pet rooster Hei Hei. Clements has said that Hei Hei is “the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation” and he’s definitely right about that, but Hei Hei is also one of the funniest.

As a final note, much like most recent Disney movies, the animated short titled Inner Workings is shown before Moana. It’s very light, cute, and a bit funny, but also has an underlining message of trying to have a bit of fun in your life. I’ve always enjoyed this cartoon shorts by Disney and its always treat to see what the animators / storytellers can dream up within these little 5 minute shorts.

FINAL THOUGHTS


The ocean is calling and adventure lies beyond the horizon in Disney’s newest animated feature Moana. Duo directors John Musker and Ron Clements present the 56th animated tale from the “House of the Mouse”, delivering an entertaining tale from start to finish that highlights the Polynesian culture with an empowering female lead. While it may not be a palpable or poignant as Zootopia, Moana succeeds in continuing the celebratory trademark by Disney’s illustrious past, with strong humor, colorful characters, impressive visuals musical songs, and a compelling story. Personally, I loved it. It was great return to Disney’s “old magic” of old, while also embracing some ideals in storytelling. Thus, I would highly recommend this feature as its definitely worth seeing whether you’re a kid or just a kid at heart. There’s just something for everyone in this movie to like about. Just like how Moana’s follows her ancestors to the sea, so too does Disney with Moana, embracing its past to chart a course (or Wavefinding) towards its future of endless possibilities.

4.4 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)

 

Released On: November 23rd, 2016
Reviewed On: November 23rd, 2016

Moana  is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements

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