Movie Review: Moana

Walt Disney Animation Studios' 56th film is Moana, a tale about an island chief's daughter who journeys to find the demigod Maui and restore the heart of an island goddess named Te Fiti and thus return her people to its rich heritage of voyaging across the sea. The tale offers a fictional explanation of why, after a long history of traveling across the sea, the Polynesians or, at least, the people of the fictional island of Motonui, mysteriously stopped for centuries and then started again. I absolutely loved this film. There is something so special about it. It is funny, touching, beautiful and inspirational.

The character of Moana, I believe, is Disney's best attempt to date to present a strong "Disney Princess" free from being defined by a romantic relationship. While Frozen's Elsa also did not have a romantic relationship, in truth, I couldn't relate to her as well as I could with Anna. Perhaps it was because she spent so much time hiding in an ice castle after an entire song about being free which I find ironic.

A large part of what makes Moana so relatable is the vocal performance of newcomer Auli'i Cravalho.  Literally the last person to audition, Cravalho's energy is so infectious, you cannot help but love her and love Moana. And, its also refreshing to finally have a Disney Princess, who is always in their mid teens, actually played by a teenage actress. And Cravalho holds her own opposite the high energy and over the top performance of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the demigod Maui. Whereas Moana brings the heart of the film, Maui brings the humor. One of the things I found funniest was his self awareness that he was in a Disney Princess film. And you'll get what I mean after you see the film.

One of my favorite characters, though, is Grandmother Tala, played by Rachel House, who is the soul of the movie. She reminded me so much of my own grandmother who was an affable and unassuming woman who held the wisdom of the ages. I thought there was a great deal of beauty in her own connection to the sea and her inspiration for Moana to take her own personal journey.

I know the film has drawn controversy in Disney's creating an amalgam of Polynesian cultures. The filmmakers traveled to such islands as Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti to research the film. And, instead of picking a particular culture, they created a fictional island of Motonui. And, while I understand the concern, I feel like Disney went to great lengths to ensure cultural accuracy.Disney put together an Oceanic Story Trust made up of various individuals across several Pacific Islands to assure cultural sensitivity. With the exception of Hei Hei, the rooster, the major cast were all people of Pacific Islander descent. And, the movie features several songs sung is Tokelauan, a language spoken on Tokelua and American Samoa.  I honestly feel that what ended up on film was respectful and reverent rather than an exotic exploitation.

Speaking of music, I loved the soundtrack. I actually listened to it before seeing the movie, but I'd almost recommend that people not listen to it until you see the movie. In the context of the film, the songs pop even more and are very inspirational. Lin-Manuel Miranda provide wonderful lyrics to Te Vaka's Opetaia Foa'i's music. Mark Mancina's score is epic and captures the heart of the film.

The artwork on the film is absolutely amazing with some scenes being so beautiful for me that it took my breath away. And, I love the way that they animated some scenes in a flatter 2D style inspired by the tranditional barkwood Tapa cloth which is prevalent in Maui's song "You're Welcome," but also in the prologue.

I just found this film to be so special. For me, it is Disney's best animated feature since 2009's Tangled. And I've loved all of their films since Tangled.

And, before I forget, the animated short Inner Workings before Moana is so cute and entertaining. It would be easy to dismiss it as a copy of Pixar's Inside Out, but I feel it has its own style and identity. I'm loving that Disney also does its own shorts and think this is fine addition to this growing contemporary tradition.


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