Original Release: November 23,2016
Runtime: 103 Minutes
Directed By: Ron Clements and John Musker
Notable Actors: Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson
I’m not going to lie. I had very high expectations going into Moana. After all, the previews looked great. The soundtrack, which released this past Friday, was phenomenal all on its own. The trouble with expectations is that they can carry you away, just like the ocean in this film. In order to pull myself back a bit, I reminded myself that despite everything, this film was directed by the guys behind The Little Mermaid, which is a film I constantly criticize for being the main reason Disney has so much work to do when it comes to creating strong female characters. That’s not to say that these guys aren’t responsible for some outright classics. It’s just to say that, well, I don’t always see eye to eye with them. But enough sugar coating. Enough eye-rolling at the thought of Clements and Musker because Moana rights every wrong I’ve ever accused them of. Prepare for some spoilers here. I’m going to need them to tell you why Moana is absolutely fantastic and (hopefully) the next Disney obsession for fans worldwide.
Musker and Clements originally had plans of adapting Terry Pratchett’s Mort after they finished the production of The Princess and the Frog. Sadly for them, the rights needed to make the film became increasingly difficult to get. Not so sadly for us, this meant that they moved on to Moana. While the original story focused on Moana saving her father, I think the story we actually got is far more interesting. In 2012, the directors headed on a research trip to Fiji, Tahiti and Samoa in hopes of learning about the people. Over the five year production period, many of these people would come to form the Oceanic Story Trust, a group which was consulted along the way to make sure the film was culturally accurate and appropriately sensitive. This definitely comes through. This was Clements and Musker’s first foray into a fully CGI film, even though Maui’s tattoos are technically hand drawn. Finally, I want to mention 14-year-old Auli’i Cravalho who was cast after hundreds of auditions, which is ironic because the character had already been created and coincidentally looks a lot like Cravalho who absolutely kills as the voice of this fantastic character.
There’s a lot to talk about here, so let’s take some baby steps. The film looks amazing. I mean, downright gorgeous. The care given to the landscapes and especially the water is eye boggling and, unlike many action films which use CGI non-stop, you will actually find your mouth dropping during some of these scenes. In many ways, the animation of the water makes it feel as though it is a living, breathing character, which I’m sure is pretty intentional. Yet, the fact that the water looks great when it’s calm, doesn’t even compare to how incredible it looks during a storm or during one of the high octane ocean action sequences. Moana and Maui are also given this high level detail and it very easy to forget that you are watching cartoons and not real people. Moana in particular is easily the most realistic animated character in a Disney film yet.
The music is also truly incredible. Look, I love Frozen as much as the next person, despite how intense it has been in the media. But I’ve always disliked that musically the film never quite fulfills itself. After Let it Go, there is no music that is memorable, and that is only the halfway point of the film. Here, the incredible compositions of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mark Mancina echo to the very end and always gave me goosebumps. In particular is How Far I’ll Go which is easily going to be the next Let It Go. In fact, I would go so far as to say this is the best Disney soundtrack in the past 10 years. It’s that good.
There are some really amazing sequences in the film. Whether it’s the Mad Max inspired Kakamora attack or the final confrontation, this film manages to be a lot more action packed than recent Disney fare. I think this gives it a great edge that it really is the perfect film for everyone. It’s easy to market to boys, girls and everyone in between and I get the feeling that its reach, because of this will be much farther reaching than Frozen or even Zootopia.
I really want to talk about this cultural piece. When I think about Disney and culture, I think about films like Mulan, Princess and the Frog and Pocahontas. And while I love all of these movies, they really have this undertone of “This is how white people see this culture.” You guys know I love Mulan, but that film is very much how white people see Chinese culture and not depictive of ACTUAL Chinese culture. Yet, in Moana, I din’t EVER get that feeling. This is a true testament to how far these directors and this team have come. In Moana, the Polynesian culture feels genuine, real and respectful, and despite the animation, music and story, this feeling of authenticity is the thing that stuck out to me the most.
And then there’s this question of femininity. I am happy to report that Moana is most definitely not Ariel. She has similarities. She leaves her family despite the danger, but that’s about where it stops. Moana is a character that is flawed and has a lot to learn. I really love that although the ocean calls to her, she starts off pretty much terrible at sailing. Yet, through the course of the film, we get to see her grow and evolve, learning what ‘being true to yourself’ really means. And most importantly, Moana is the hero in the end. She is the one who finally ends the darkness. She doesn’t need to be saved. And after all of that, she takes her new knowledge home to her family and together they set sail onto the water. It’s really beautiful throughout and Moana is a young lady I think parents would be happy to have as a role model for their youngsters. After all, she has some pretty amazing role models herself. Her grandmother is fantastic and the moment when her mother helps her to leave the island brought tears to my eyes.
If I’m being honest, I can’t ignore my one criticism of the film. At one point, Moana and Maui enter the realm of monsters and meet a giant crab named Tamatoa. This incites the song “Shiny” which I am sad to say, is terrible. It doesn’t fit into the film or the rest of the soundtrack at all. It’s not fun or interesting and in many ways it feels rehashed from villainous songs before it. Even the beat of the song is all over the place. It’s made worse by the fact that everything else about the film is SO GOOD, that it makes this one scene just feel so bad. I remember thinking as it was happening that I wanted it to end. Please make it end. How is it not over yet?? Okay, bad part out of the way. Let’s verdict this thing.
Despite that one scene, Moana is downright phenomenal. It has fantastic animation, music, characters and a story that I think will resonate with a lot of people who want to live up to their family’s expectations while still being their own person. Moana herself is a fine addition to the Disney princess lineup and definitely the most forward thinking of all of them. She’s not perfect and she’s not good at everything she does and that makes her incredibly interesting and fun to watch. Maui is hilarious and proof that we are who we are because of our heart, and no one gets to decide if we are worthy of praise or not. Moana will surely be the next craze to hit the world from Disney, and I’m happy to say that it 100% deserves it. If you haven’t seen Moana, well, I’m sorry I spoiled some things, BUT you should go see it! And if you already did see it, let me know what you think in the comments!