Cinema reflects its audience. If moviegoers crave – even demand – something, the movies themselves will fulfill that in some form or another. When it comes to Disney’s animated films, audiences appear to want fare that’s more complex and progressive while still being fun. The Disney Revival Era appears to be tailor-made for them, as its films focus on themes like depression (Big Hero 6), identity (Wreck-It Ralph), and discrimination (Zootopia) and also showcase diverse (The Princess and the Frog) and strong female characters (Frozen). This welcome trend continues with Moana, which admittedly doesn’t pave new ground in terms of storytelling, but its true strength comes from a lively pair of lead characters – particularly the titular Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), who will surely be a landmark Disney heroine in the ages to come.
Moana operates with a fairly formulaic story that needs polish, though it’s certainly an interesting one that plays out. It holds a few surprises in store, but it’s not difficult to predict within the first twenty minutes how the film will end. The messages and themes aren’t entirely new either, but the emotional beats that lead to and reinforce them are handled beautifully with great care. The Polynesian influences do set it apart from other Disney films, offering us a unique culture, people, and setting that hardly ever get realized on the big screen. The world itself raises a couple of questions that the film doesn’t quite answer, specifically the role of the ocean itself. Given its self-awareness and sentience, is it a god that transcends the demigods and creatures? It aids and interacts with the characters in supernatural ways, so why does it not solve all of their problems itself? As the characters move along on their adventure, the film drags in the second act, though it cheekily pays homage to other films like The Little Mermaid and Mad Max: Fury Road, ensuring that the proceedings remain a visual treat throughout.
What makes the film spark with life are the lead characters, and the voice performances for them are top-notch. Full of spunk and eager to learn, Moana easily ranks among the most fully realized characters in the Disney pantheon. She follows her desires and also acts out of a compassion and responsibility for her village, making her a truly multifaceted character who has agency. Cravalho injects energy and warmth into the role with gusto, and it’s clear that she’s having fun bringing this character to life. Dwayne Johnson approaches Maui with irresistible verve, and he effortlessly nails the demigod’s vanity, making him flat-out hilarious from beginning to end. Maui himself doesn’t boast a well developed arc like Moana does, as his is rushed toward the end and even concludes bizarrely in a way that seems to counter the film’s theme of identity, but he’s a force to be reckoned with whenever he’s on screen. As a duo, Moana and Maui simply crackle, bickering and teasing each other relentlesly. The film surrounds them with an interesting group of supporting characters, and it’s neat how it humanizes the most important ones, namely Moana’s father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) and grandmother Tala (Rachel House).
From a visual and audial standpoint, the film is a blast. Lush islands and underwater locations burst with vivid colors, and the same goes for some of the characters, chiefly a treasure-hoarding giant crab named Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), whose bioluminescent ability can be quite a trip when he activates it. The animation itself is marvelous, and what’s neat is how the film combines computer animation with traditional hand-drawn animation for Maui, as his 3-D body often interacts with his hand-drawn tattoos to great humorous effect. Texturing tends to be a great example of how far animation has come over the years, and the film has a few moments where it gets to show that off, like when Moana gets sand in her hair and shakes it off. Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame teams up with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina (who also composed the score) to write the film’s songs, and they brim with excitement and heart. “How Far I’ll Go,” “We Know the Way,” and “You’re Welcome” are obvious highlights, and the only song that doesn’t work as well is “Shiny,” as that one is featured in what feels like an extraneous sequence.
Despite its formulaic story, Moana sails the high seas with relative ease, thanks in large part to the chemistry between its lead characters. Handsomely animated and delivering plenty of humor to make this an overall fun affair, the film is also quite the progressive achievement, and that will certainly make modern audiences happy.
Moana Rating: 4.0/5.0
QUICK TAKE: Inner Workings
Preceding Moana is the Disney short Inner Workings, which follows the humorous attempts by a young man’s brain and heart to control their host’s actions. The film earns laughs from its use of repetition, synchronization of actions, and terrific sound mixing. It also hits home on an emotional level when addressing the divide between following the head and following the heart, though one can argue that it’s guilty of sweeping generalizations. The animation is colorful yet simple, and the film could do with highlighting other parts of the body being featured here. Overall, a fun watch.
Inner Workings Rating: 4.0/5.0
* Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures