Disney’s newest animated feature film MOANA was directed by legendary filmmakers Ron Clements and John Musker (THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN) and although it may not reach the quality level of their earlier films, it still offers a good mixture of humor, adventure and emotion. The true heart and soul of the movie lies deep within the film’s title character. A strong female lead (Moana) whose willful confidence and determination are tested throughout the story’s duration, giving audiences (especially young girls) a character that will inspired them. Continue reading for our full spoiler-free MOANA review.
The tale finds its roots in the Polynesian culture and follows the adventures of Moana, daughter of a Pacific Island Chief, as she struggles to find her own identity. Moana is drawn to the ocean and yearns to sail out beyond the reef, a place where her father forbids any of the Islanders to venture out past. The call of the sea is strong though and it doesn’t help that Moana’s grandmother is continuously encouraging her to follow her heart. Then, when the village’s resources start to dry up, Moana decides to go against her father’s wishes and sneak off, sailing across the uncharted waters in search of the shape-shifting Maui, a somewhat rude and egotistical demigod who may be the key to saving her people.
Moana is a fascinating character, because she is not your typical Disney Princess. At one point in the film she even comes right out and says, “I am NOT a Princess.” Voiced by first timer Auli’i Cravalho, she is self-assured, makes her own decisions and shows true strength without the need of a prince to lean on or pine for. Her relationship with the demigod Maui is an interesting one, because it goes against the Disney tradition by staying away from the typical love interest story-line, giving Moana a certain amount of independence that allows her the strength to stand on her own.
The muscled demigod Maui is voiced by the larger than life Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Using the same charismatic charm that made him a star in the world of the WWE, Johnson turns out to be the perfect fit for the character. Maui is self-centered and cocky with a real desire to have mere mortals adore him and Johnson does a great job with these traits while still maintaining the lovable quality needed to draw us in. He even gets to sing the best song in the film “You’re Welcome” and yes that’s his own voice. Adding to the fun, Maui is also given a helping hand by the tattoos that cover his body. At times, a “Mini Maui” silhouette will come to life and act as a kind of conscious for him. The ink that covers his body is literally at war with Maui’s selfish priorities and this gives us some of the more inventive moments the film has to offer.
The relationship between Moana and her grandmother Tala (voiced by Rachel House) is the most fascinating element in the film. In MOANA’s first act Tala is the one who encourages Moana in every way possible and although she doesn’t go on the actual adventure with Moana, her presence is felt throughout the film as a whole giving Moana’s emotional journey even more strength than it already had.
Inspired by everything from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (yes, you read that right) to their very own 1989 masterpiece THE LITTLE MERMAID, co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker do a great job in keeping the film moving forward while giving audiences the right mixture of character, emotion, action and humor (The character of Hei Hei, an extremely stupid chicken with a heart of gold is laugh out loud hysterical at times). Unfortunately, they do seem to be tested by the modern computer generated animation process as MOANA offers the directing team an opportunity to move away from the traditional hand-drawn style of animation they are so used to. The images feel generic and even a little uninspired at times which is not consistent with any of their previous films. Remember the amazing visuals given to us during “Kiss the Girl” in THE LITTLE MERMAID? It’s no surprise that the most impressive visuals come from the tattoos that move around Maui’s body, because this is the part of the film achieved in the traditional hand-drawn way.
HAMILTON creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and musician Opetaia Foa’i were brought on board to create the original songs for the film and they deliver a wide array of tunes such as the girl-power themed “How Far I’ll Go” and the more upbeat “You’re Welcome.” The songs aren’t as memorable as some of Disney’s best and people aren’t going to get them continually stuck it their head as they did with FROZEN’s “Let It Go” (wait, that may be a good thing), but Miranda and Foa’i still succeeded in creating musical numbers that work well within the story and the themes expressed.
Disney’s MOANA isn’t going to go down in history as a classic, but it’s ultimately a fun and emotional ride. I admire the creation of one of Disney’s best female characters in Moana, and I must show some appreciation for the conclusion to the film’s climactic moments (Don’t worry. I will not spoil it.) which is both original and smart. If Moana is an example of the quality of films that the end of the year will have to offer, then I believe we may be in for a good Holiday Season at the movies.
One last note: like most of Disney’s animated features, MOANA does not start the show. Attached to the beginning is a wonderful short film by director Leonardo Matsuda called INNER WORKINGS. Sharing some of the same themes as MOANA, it tells a very different story as a man must learn to find his true self by discovering the balance between work and play. The visuals here, like MOANA, mix modern day computer-generated animation with the traditional hand-drawn style. Inspired by the acetate anatomy pages in the old encyclopedia Britannica books, we witness a man’s brain and heart battle it out over control of the man’s actions. The theme of balance in one’s life is nothing new, but Matsuda handles it in a way that feels both original and fresh. There are some real laugh-out-loud gags combined with some truly heartbreaking emotional moments. INNER WORKINGS also offers a conclusion that brings the subject matter one step further than most movies that examine this theme. If I’m being honest, I have to admit that as much as I liked MOANA, it’s INNER WORKINGS that is the true gem.