Moana (2016) Disney/Adventure-Comedy-Fantasy-Musical RT: 103 minutes Rated PG (peril, some scary images, brief thematic elements) Director: Ron Clements and John Musker Screenplay: Jared Bush Story: Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell Music: Mark Mancina (score), Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i (songs) Release date: November 23, 2016 (US) Cast: Auli’I Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Scherzinger, Jermaine Clement, Alan Tudyk.
Is it too soon to predict that Moana is the next Disney classic? Not to brag but I was right about Frozen three years back. Disney has had a pretty good run with their animated movies these last eight years with winners like Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia. If you’re wondering why last year’s excellent Inside Out isn’t on the list, it’s because it’s technically a Pixar (a different division of Disney) movie.
All the movies I mentioned are quite good but only Frozen can rightfully be regarded as a classic along the lines of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. I am absolutely certain Moana will ascend to the very same level. It has all the necessary prerequisites; great animation, dazzling visuals, catchy tunes, clever gags, a huge sense of fun and, most importantly, a strong-willed heroine (with a goofy comic sidekick animal).
In this case, it’s the titular character (newcomer Cravalho), the 15-year-old daughter of a Polynesian village chief. She’s next in line to inherit the title but only if she gives up her dreams of leaving the island. Her father (Morrison, Once Were Warriors) says it’s too dangerous to travel beyond the reef and for good reason. Legend has it that 1000 years earlier, the demigod Maui (Johnson, the Fast & Furious movies) stole the heart of island goddess Te Fiti, angering her and turning her into a lava monster. His action also brings about the gradual destruction of nature. Now that the curse has started to affect her home, Moana takes decisive action to make things right.
All her life, her father and mother (Pussycat Dolls singer Scherzinger) have repeatedly told her to stay away from the ocean. That’s a lot to ask considering the ocean chose her, as a toddler, to restore the heart of Te Fiti. It’s her destiny. Not long after discovering her people’s ancestors were voyagers, she takes one of their sailboats (from a hidden cave on the island) and embarks on a perilous mission to save her island and her people.
Along with her dimwitted pet rooster Heihei (Tudyk, Firefly), she sets off to find Maui who’s been living in exile on a small island, stripped of his powers, since angering Te Fiti all those many years ago. He eventually agrees to help her but only if she helps him first. He needs to retrieve his fishhook/staff (a gift from the gods) which gives him the power to shapeshift. It’s being held by a giant crab, Tamatoa (Clement, Flight of the Conchords), with a penchant for shiny objects.
Moana is an enormously entertaining family film. It’s one that parents will enjoy just as much as their children. What’s not to enjoy? Moana is spunky, intelligent, fearless and determined. Not only that, she doesn’t expect any man to fight her battles for her. In fact, the opposite sex is the farthest thing from her mind. Like Mulan and Merida (Brave) before her, she’s not out to land a husband or gain her father’s approval. Moana has an obligation- to herself AND her people- to fulfill her destiny; if it means fighting side-by-side with an egotistical male demigod, then so be it. Just whatever you do, DON’T call her a princess like Maui does at one point. He says “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” It’s one of the movie’s best lines.
In any event, Moana is an excellent role model for little girls. In her acting debut, 15-year-old Cravalho does a wonderful job. Her voice radiates grace, energy and great comic timing. She’s also a terrific singer. Johnson is equally great as the huge-muscled Maui, a demigod whose heart is a big as his bod. The wrestler-turned-action star has a knack for comedy and it shows in Moana. A running gag has Maui’s tattoos acting as an illustrated Greek chorus of sorts, either telling parts of his backstory or commenting on the action.
The computer-generated animation in Moana is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. The things they can do with CA still has the power to amaze. It’s in the small things like the way Moana’s hair moves, the water in the ocean comes to life or the attention paid to tiny details. I won’t lie, I’ve grown bored of CA since it became the norm; movies like Moana revive my interest. The animators, with what they do, take it up to the next level of excellence. The visuals are colorful, vibrant and gorgeous. One of the coolest scenes has Moana and Maui doing battle with a band of coconut pirates. The lava monster may be too awesome a spectacle; I fear it will frighten smaller children too much.
If I have any problem with Moana, it’s this. While very good, the musical numbers aren’t as great as those in Beauty and the Beast or Frozen. None of them stand out like “Let It Go” or “Belle”. Nonetheless, the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (star and creator of Broadway’s current smash hit Hamilton) and Opetaia Foa’i are very good. Cravalho belts out the girl-power anthem “How Far I’ll Go” and Johnson gets to do a self-promoting tune “You’re Welcome”.
One of the best things about Moana, in addition to it being an exciting fantasy-adventure, is that it’s funny. In addition to dialogue, Heihei the rooster is great comic relief. Therein lies one of the movie’s subversive elements. It proves that NOT all animals are smart. This is one dumb bird. There’s so much to love about Moana that I could write a lot more about it. But I’m writing a review, NOT a novel. I’ll start wrapping things up. The movie is preceded by an amusing little animated short called Inner Workings. Be sure to stay through the end credits for a funny post-credits scene. Most importantly, be sure to take your kids to see Moana. That actually goes without saying since I predict it will be another smash hit for the studio that the Mouse built. I’m all for that; Moana is that rare kid-oriented flick that doesn’t pander or insult the intelligence of viewers over the age of 11. Even if it does occasionally resort to bathroom humor, it’s still one of the year’s best family-friendly animated films.