Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker Starring: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson
Film Review by Kieran Freemantle
One of the great staples of Disney Studio is their Princess properties, from Snow White to Frozen's Anna and Elsa. With Moana, the studio has made a princess adventure using a tropical Polynesia setting and continuing Disney's Second Renaissance.
A thousand years ago the shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti - the bringer of life. This act leads to a darkness spreading across the ocean and it reaches the island of Motunui where a young woman - Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) - is the heir to the chief (Temuera Morrison). Crops are failing and fish have disappeared from traditional fishing grounds. Moana has to defy her father's orders and sets sail beyond the reef, looking for Maui and to return the heart back to Te Fiti.
Back in 2013 Frozen earned a lot of praise for subverting the tropes of the Disney Princes subgenre - ignoring Shrek had already parodied and subverted Disney tropes. Moana is the more daring and original from the House of Mouse. The story structure is a typical 'Hero's Journey' - someone from a small village has to go on an adventure beyond the world they know so they can save their home. However, unlike other Disney Princesses who have been criticised for being too submissive, Moana is a headstrong young woman who wants to explore beyond her island: yet is being tutored in the skills of leadership and shows a talent for it. There is no love interest and the usual Disney theme of love is creatively twisted - more so than it was in Frozen. Not that Moana lacks references to previous Disney films - from a quick cameo to more subtle references to previous Disney story beats.
When Moana finally meets Maui they become an incredible double act. I have a soft spot for Johnson: he is the best wrestler to become an actor, having charisma and a good sense of comedic timing. He plays a larger than life character, with a huge ego whose only goal is to get back his magic hook: Maui only acts to help Moana because his tattoos act as his conscience and the ocean literally forces them together. Some of Maui's actions make him seem like he is aware he is in a Disney film. Johnson was also able to handle the sincere, emotional moments that audiences would expect from an animated Disney film.
Although Johnson was strong in his role, Auli'i Cravalho was the true star of Moana and a terrific find by Disney. Cravalho is a teenage Hawaiian girl and only 14 when she was cast and 16 at the time of this film review. She is the youngest actress ever to play a Disney Princess and was hugely likeable in the lead role - being a charming, upbeat and confident young woman and was funny and emotional in equal measure. Cravalho had a great singing voice and she clearly has the potential to become a star.
Many of the actors were of Polynesian descent (i.e. Hawaiian, Fijian, Samoan and Maori), which shows a certain level of sensitivity from Disney. There is a discrepancy because some characters speak with American accents - others have New Zealander accents, but this is just minor nit-picking. The only non-Polynesian actor in the film was Alan Tudyk and that’s because he has become a lucky charm for Disney, appearing in all their films since Wreck-It Ralph. Tudyk was given the role of Hei Hei - the incredibly stupid chicken that could rival Becky in Finding Dory for mental deficiency. Hei Hei offered plenty of child-friendly humour as it is a marvel how he survives.
Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the music for Moana and, as expected from a man whose show won a Tony Award for Best Musical, the songs were of a high quality. The song that has been getting the most attention was Maui's jazzy introductory song "You're Welcome" where he shows off his achievements and modest attitude and the use of a Polynesian art style made the scene similar to "I Just Can't Wait to be King" in The Lion King. However, the best song was "How Far I'll Go" where she sings about her dream of exploring the world, but has to accept her responsibility to be the next chieftain. It was Moana's "For the First Time in Forever" being respired during the run time. Jermaine Clement had the villain song, "Shiny" which sounded a lot like the song "Goodbye Moonmen" - which he sung in Rick and Morty, which in turn has been compared to David Bowie’s sound. Screen Junkies are going to have fun making their parody songs for their Honest Trailer series.
Opetaia Foa'i from the music group Te Vaka also provide some songs for the soundtrack. The big number is "We Know the Way" and, because of the use of percussion instruments and tribal chanting, it was like the opening for The Lion King.
Moana is the CGI animated film from Ron Clements and John Musker - who worked on films like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog. The pair have made a beautiful looking film, showing Moana's home as a tropical paradise and the water efforts are some of the best in an animated film. Animating water is one of the most difficult tasks in CGI animation and the way water moved was like the water in James Cameron's The Abyss. The Ocean was a character in its own right as it interacted with Moana and Maui. The main villain, Te Kā the lava monster, was an impressive feat of animation, being black and glowing orange with lava flowing from it. Bright luminous colours were used when showing Tamatoa the crab monster: when the lights went out - it was a startling effect.
Moana is a great modern take on the Disney Princess genre, updating the characters and the themes and giving the audience a proactive female hero. A great addition to Disney's recent scale of animated films.
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