Disney’s animated films are famous for taking audiences to new places. In recent years, the studio has even branched out into new genres. We’ve seen an action/adventure through the world of video games, a return to the classic fairytale, a superhero epic, and a poignant talking animal movie all within the past five years. Moana not only takes you to uncharted waters, but also offers a hybrid genre among these recent films.
Inspired by Oceanic mythology, Moana has elements of a fairytale, but none of the familiar settings. As a character she’s akin to the modern princess, taking matters into her own hands. In other words, Moana is just as much an action hero as her demigod companion, Maui. And did I mention that Moana is a musical yet?
A thousand years ago, the arrogant demigod Maui stole the heart of the mother island, Te Fiti, unleashing a horrifying monster who will destroy the world to get it back. Moana, a young chief’s daughter, has always felt drawn to the sea, but is forbidden to explore it. So after learning of Maui’s wrongdoing and discovering the heart of Te Fiti, she steals a boat and ventures off on a quest to find Maui to help set things right.
Moana offers a breathtaking escape to a tropical paradise called Motonui, her home island. It combines elements of Oceanic wayfinding history with folk tales and some uniquely Disney twists. It’s a beautiful film, both esthetically and in terms of the story that unfolds along the way.
Disney fans will recognize the names Ron Musker and John Clements, the directing duo behind such classics as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, The Princess and the Frog, and now Moana. In their first CG venture, the animators have found self-referential ways to include nods to all of their past directing efforts (except for maybe The Great Mouse Detective). This is a tradition of theirs that started with Aladdin and continues almost 25 years later in this film.
The voice cast features largely unknown actors in most of the roles, thanks to Disney’s commitment to casting actors of Pacific Island descent. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson gets star billing as Maui, a character who was practically based on him. Moana is voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, a 16-year-old Hawaiian girl who auditioned through YouTube and won the title role. Both give spirited and powerful vocal performances to their characters and help establish their dynamic personalities.
The music is by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, In the Heights), Opetaia Foa’i (Te Vaka) and the score is by Mark Mancina (Tarzan, Brother Bear, Planes). Miranda’s songs are catchy, memorable and will stay with you forever. My personal favorite is “You’re Welcome,” a cocky Maui jingle sung by Dwayne Johnson (who is a pretty good singer!). The “Let It Go” of the film is called “How Far I’ll Go,” the melody for which gets repeated several times in subsequent songs. The anthem from the trailer, “We Know the Way,” is featured twice in the film and another great song, “Where You Are,” establishes how trapped Moana feels by her island. Foa’i’s Tokelauan music throughout the film makes it feel authentic in the same way that Lebo M. infused The Lion King with Swahili and African instruments.
Moana’s plot is fairly serious with a few sad moments, particularly for those who shared a strong relationship with a grandparent. But in true Disney fashion, the film is peppered with comedic bits that lighten the mood. These largely come from Hei Hei, an incredibly stupid chicken, and Maui, whose Johnson-isms bring some of the biggest laughs to the film. But if there’s one character who makes you absolutely melt, it’s Moana’s adorable pet pig, Pua, who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.
Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced another memorable and winning film that is destined to become a classic. It’s difficult to rank it among the studios’ recent offerings since it is so different. I don’t think it will achieve the same level of pop culture impact of Frozen or Zootopia, but it’s sure to be a hit and you won’t soon forget Moana.
I give Moana 5 out of 5 Kakamora Coconut Pirates