If the late 1980s through the 1990s was the Disney Renaissance, then we must be currently living in the Disney Age of Enlightenment. In 2009, Disney made a big move and returned to hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog and they haven't looked back. Since then, we have had Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia. Now we have Moana and it might possibly be the best of the bunch.
Moana is the story of a teenager (Auli-i Cravalho) who leaves home on a daring mission to help save her people because demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of Te Fiti, threatening all life and the islands. Moana defies her father's orders and sets sail further than her people have gone before in search of Maui in hopes that he will defeat Te Kā, a demon of earth and fire, and return the heart of Te Fiti.
Let's talk about the good and the weaknesses (because I couldn't find anything bad) of Moana:
I could write a whole story about how amazing the characters are in Moana, but let's start with the title character. Moana is an adventurous teenager that has always gravitated towards the ocean since her childhood, and she may be the strongest Disney "princess" developed so far - it's a toss-up between her and Mulan. Also, I hesitate to even call her a princess, but I'll take Maui's word for it - you'll understand after you see the movie (no spoilers!). Obviously Moana has the most development over the course of the story, but that isn't what makes her so strong. A lot of what makes Moana so likable is the stupendous voice acting and singing by Auli'i Cavalho, a newcomer and the first Disney "princess" to be the same age as the character she is voicing. Listen to her belt out "How Far I'll Go" (her "Let It Go" or "Part of Your World"), and you'll be sold instantly.
I mentioned her connection to the ocean, so I'd say it is worth mentioning that the ocean is actually a character in the film. We first learned this back during the 2015 D23 Expo when they showed a very moving clip of Moana interacting with the ocean, so it was great to finally see how they would expand on the character. The ocean actually provides a good amount of humor throughout the film, which is hilarious, because it is rare to see an inanimate object as a character that has an ability to make you both weep and laugh.
Speaking of hilarious characters, Moana's sidekick during her quest is the dumber-than-rocks Heihei (voiced by Alan Tudyk and pronounced HEY HEY) and he will leave you in stitches. The comic relief from Heihei is very one-note and had the potential to get old very fast, but for me it never did. The audience I was in must've felt the same, because roars of laughter erupted every time Heihei pulled another classic Heihei - I'm going to make that phrase happen.
It wouldn't be a thorough review if I didn't mention Maui, the demigod voiced by Dwayne Johnson. I was one of many who had doubts about Johnson performing this role, but boy did he deliver. His voice perfectly encapsulated everything about Maui's personality, which worked out well in the film, but could leave a sour taste in some mouths, because his voice sticks out much more than the rest of the cast. And who knew he could sing? His song "You're Welcome" was actually one of the better songs in the movie and almost felt like a new version of "Friend Like Me," but not nearly as epic. Dwayne Johnson is great, but he's no Robin Williams.
I mentioned two songs already, so might as well just go over the rest. The music was a joint collaboration between Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa'i, and I can't get the songs and score out of my head. If there is a weak spot on the soundtrack, it would be "Shiny" as sung by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) who plays Tamatoa, a large and bizarre crab. However, the song channels glam rock of the '70s and it works for Clement's style and it is now a guilty pleasure of mine. The most beautiful song is "Tulou Tagaloa" and it plays during that Moana/ocean sequence I mentioned earlier. Every time I listen to it, I can feel the emotion from that scene coming back in the most powerful way.
I have heard a lot of people being negative in regards to the soundtrack and score, and I can definitely see that point of view, but give it time and I think the music will really start to grow on people. Most of the negativity is towards the rap-centric style that is brought to the table from Miranda, but it really does fit well with the style of the film. Will it blow up the same way that Frozen did? No, but it will live beside the fabulous music of Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, and Frozen, the same way The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King all had to co-exist during the Renaissance.
There is something about the Pacific Islands that exudes a certain romanticism that just transports you away and that is present throughout all of Moana. As a Disney fan, it is very similar to the feeling many get when they finally stay at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort. I don't know if it is the exoticness or the culture, but something is just overwhelmingly appealing about the Pacific. Lilo & Stitch gave us a taste of the Pacific back in the days of 2D hand-drawn animation, but Moana perfected the look.
All of the credit goes to the direction from Ron Clements and John Musker. Both directors racked up credits during the Renaissance and beyond, but they are thriving in their first 3D CG outing. They spent a ton of time researching and traveling to find inspiration for the film and I can't imagine how it could've translated any better. I can't wait to see what the duo has in store for the future.
If I have one issue with Moana, it would be the length. Granted, my screening of the film was on the beach of Disney's Polynesian Village Resort on one of the coldest nights of the year, so any amount of time outside seemed like too long, but it was a long movie. The length was only 103 minutes, but there were definitely some parts that dragged a bit. That isn't to say the entire movie played out slowly, but there were definitely some lulls in between the humor and heart.
One of the best sequences in the film has to be the initial fight with the Kakmora. The Kakamora are these tiny, wild, coconut-armored pirates who live on giant vessels freely roaming the ocean. Their big scene is just so bizarre and you'll be thinking Mad Max: Fury Road the entire time. Seriously.
Like most Disney movies of late, Moana starts out with a short film. Inner Workings is an Inside Out-inspired short that follows a man with a play-it-safe, boring brain that constantly fears death as an outcome and a heart that longs for something more. The short does feature some potty humor, literally, but it is surprisingly funny. Disney might not be as strong as Pixar is with shorts, but this one definitely will lighten up your spirits before Moana starts.
I want to say that Moana is the next Disney masterpiece, but really time will decide that. Earlier this year Zootopia became a smash hit, but has started to dwindle from minds, while Frozen from 2013 continues to be mentioned on a daily basis by Disney fans. I personally feel like Moana will be loved by many and will have staying power to be a Walt Disney Animation classic, but it's up to the audience now! Moana has so much heart, so many laugh out loud moments, and such an interesting story that it deserves to be watched and re-watched. The fact that Moana is a Disney "princess" who doesn't need (and isn't looking for) a prince and doesn't have an overarching villain is reason enough to see what else the film has to offer. And if the music is your style, you'll be hooked for sure.
Moana is in theaters November 23.
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