The ocean is calling.
An epic high-seas adventure in the vein of Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013), Moana — Disney’s 56th animated motion picture — is a beautifully rousing CGI-animated tale that tells the inspirational story of a tenacious adolescent girl who embarks on a life-changing voyage across the open ocean, the House of Mouse adapting another culture-specific fable to fit their time-tested family-friendly formula — think German folklore Rapunzel reshaped into 2010’s Tangled — a template that’s proven successful since 1937, when it was first laid out in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Partly inspired by the profound stories of the people and cultures of Oceania, Moana, set many, many years in the past, opens up in the South Pacific, on the serene Polynesian island of Motunui. You see, Moana Waialiki (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) had always had a deep connection with the ocean, which seemed to beacon her, drawn to its spell from a very young age, despite being told to never leave the safety of the reef by her overprotective father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), the village leader, who feared the dangers beyond the tide himself. Although the chief had hoped his daughter and successor would embrace her responsibility and follow in his footsteps, the headstrong dreamer longed for something more, Moana struggling to find her place in the peaceful farming community she was set to govern.
However, Moana’s deep friendship with Gramma Tala (Rachel House) — the free-spirited mother of Chief Tui — encourages the soon-to-be-chieftess to ‘dance to the beat of her own drum,’ filling her granddaughter’s head with fantastical myths and tall tales, particularly that of Maui (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), a magical fishhook-wielding shape-shifting demigod responsible for the terrible darkness consuming the land (and the people’s withering resources) — this evil threatening to destroy their society. According to legend, the egotistical Maui had, long ago, stolen the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti (a Mother Nature type deity) as a gift for humanity, unleashing a malevolent force — a lava demon known as Te Kā — when doing so, thus cursing the world in the process.
Stirred by her grandmother’s stories, the sprightly teenager soon musters up the courage to venture beyond the fringing reef in the hope of locating more fish, which have (of late) become scarce. Beaten and broken by the fierce salty waters, Moana is quickly thrust back onto the shore. There, she runs into her gran, who, as a pick-me-up, reveals the secrets of their seafaring ancestors, navigators and fishermen who used only the waves and the stars to traverse the vast Pacific, discovering new locations and marvelous sights, their fleet of outrigger sailing canoes hidden in a cave concealed behind a lush waterfall — this elapsed way-of-life put to rest by the venom sweeping over the seas. In addition, Moana also learns that she had been summoned by the Ocean as a child, being gifted a tiny green pounamu gemstone, which was, in fact, Te Fiti’s missing ticker, Tala keeping it safe for all these years.
Minutes later, tragedy strikes, with Tala suddenly passing, her dying words compelling Moana to fulfill her destiny and ‘set sail.’ Guided by Gramma Tala’s spirit — in the form of a fluorescent stingray — and learning of her true heritage (having descended from a long line of voyagers), Moana borrows a drua (a type of double-hull catamaran) and, along with an accidental stowaway — a clueless ‘pet’ rooster, Heihei — she journeys out into the wide-open sea determined to save her settlement and restore her dying world by locating Maui and forcing him to return Te Fiti’s heart (which he stole some thousand years ago) to the isle from whence it came.
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the guys responsible for spearheading some of Disney’s most iconic movies — The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992) and Hercules (1997) — Moana is a near-perfect contemporary heroine story. Substituting the love-struck European noblewoman for an independent and compassionate chief’s daughter, our protagonist is a sheltered young lady yearning to discover her true self, despite her inner doubt. Also, on his own personal quest of self-discovery is half-god, half-mortal Maui (a prominent figure in Polynesian folklore) who’s reluctantly dragged into heroism, guiding the titular traveler in proving herself a master wayfinder, the mismatched duo overcoming gargantuan creatures and impossible maritime odds along the way.
Packed with frisky banter, earworm tunes and those affable ‘animal’ sidekicks — the ‘brainless’ Heihei (Disney regular Alan Tudyk supplying the squawks) and the Ocean itself, which, here, is shown to be playful, calming and pure, in a spellbinding sorta way — Moana builds-upon and strengthens these long-established tropes, pushing Disney’s traditional storytelling further into the 21st Century — the result, simply outstanding!
With its fresh tribal setting and immersive narrative (rooted in mythology), the film is gorgeously realized by Clements and Musker, this being the pair’s first ever CGI outing; but you wouldn’t guess it, as Moana is ravishingly picturesque, filled with far-reaching vistas of lavish lands, colorful coral reefs, sparkling blue lagoons and gleaming skylines, the sheer level of detail and realism in the artwork beyond spectacular, the movie also featuring the most dazzling depiction of ‘Mother Earth’ ever projected on screen.
Moreover, a sequence in Lalotai, a realm inhabited by monsters, is a bona fide jaw-dropper, the diabolical undersea Shangrila radiating with wondrous yet devilish sights, this scene featuring the villainous Tamatoa, a longstanding nemesis of Maui — voiced by a gleeful Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords (2007) — a narcissistic, 50-foot treasure-hording crustacean with a bling-covered shell, the beady-eyed bottom feeder stealing the show with his swanky David-Bowie-esque musical number, ‘Shiny.’ Then there‘s the Kakamora, a battalion of small coconut-clad pirates who roam the seas on a fleet of junk-covered Mad Max type vessels, these Gremlin-like wildlings involved the film’s zaniest action set piece, while the towering fierce-and-fiery Te Kā makes for a visually impressive obstacle, too.
Enlivened by charismatic performances, leads Dwayne Johnson, Race to Witch Mountain (2009), and young Hawaiin star Auli’i Cravalho (making her feature-film debut) authentically bring Moana and the mischievous trickster Maui to life, these charming protagonists both strong in character and personality; it helps, too, that the rip-roaring screenplay by Jared Bush, Zootopia (2016), take its time to develop Moana before she sets off on her daunting yet life-affirming expedition, surveying her hopes and aspirations, the 16-year-old Cravalho richly rendering the non-archetypal ‘princess’ with feisty spirit and depth, Moana a rock-solid role model for young girls today.
Likewise, Johnson’s turn as the overconfident, once-mighty Maui is a delightful mix of friskiness and smarm, People Magazine’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ showing us that he, too, can carry a tune. With the ‘all-awesome’ Maui literally wearing his emotions on his pecs, filmmakers have a lotta fun with Mini-Maui, a sentient muscle-man tattoo located on the left of his chest; a fusion of 2D and 3D animation, the highly-expressive body-art — brought to life by veteran animator Eric Goldberg, The Princess and the Frog (2009) — acts as both comic relief and Maui’s conscience, the little guy’s antics nabbing the spotlight in a handful of scenes.
Despite the ‘brownfacing’ controversy — Maui initially described as an overweight ‘half pig, half hippo,’ his physique coming across a negative stereotype — the comprehensive designs are quite respectful to the Polynesian people, Maui’s robust shape resembling ‘strength’ as opposed to anything offensive, filmmakers deeply honoring the indigenous islanders their customs and traditions in all facets of production, the characters, their movements and outfits influenced by Polynesian histories and societies — think Samoua, Tonga, Hawaii, New Zealand and even Papua New Guinean.
The same can be said for the score and songs. Working alongside composer Mark Mancina, Planes (2013), and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i combines non-English and English lyrics with rhythmic drumming and choral vocals, the music a hypnotic medley of stirring, explosive sounds; showcasing Maui’s colorful personality, the catchy ‘You’re Welcome’ is impossible to get out of one’s head, while the film’s powerful ‘I Want’ ballad, ‘How Far I’ll Go,’ performed with sensitivity and bluster by actress Cravalho, calls to mind those desire-fueled hits such as ‘The Little Mermaid’s ‘Part of Your World’ and ‘Reflection’ from Mulan.
Five years in the making — with two directors, Clements and Musker, two co-directors, Don Hall and Chris Williams, along with seven filmmakers penning the story, and that’s not including screenwriter Bush — Moana is a spectacularly crafted Disney fairytale that’s sure to ‘Go the Distance,’ even if its structure treads somewhat familiar waters. A sweet, crowd-pleasing Oceanic extravaganza, complete with a lively voice cast, breathtaking visuals, memorable tunes and moving themes of identity, self-realization and perseverance, Moana rightfully earns its place in the canon of cherished pictures from the 93-year old animation studio. I’ll put it out there … Moana could very well be my new all-time favorite Disney film!
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner