'Moana' Review

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Moana has been built up as a Disney animated film that goes where no other has before, namely into the legends of Hawaii and the Pacific. But while they change the usual setting and the usual makeup of their lead character, they leave room to wonder whether a change of location makes up for fewer changes to the rest of their formula. Nonetheless, while that formula has seen some ups and downs over almost 80 years of Disney films, Moana further proves that it is still on one of its hotter streaks right now.

The world of the land and sea has suffered ever since cocky demigod Maui stole the stone heart of a life giving island goddess, forging a darkness that has consumed countless lands. One such land survives by keeping to itself, even though the chief's daughter and future heir Moana feels the call of the larger ocean. When there are no more fish in the reef, Moana's eccentric grandmother and the very ocean itself show her that she has the long missing heart, and is the only one who can find Maui and make him put it back to fix the world before her people starve. However, it isn't easy convincing the powerless but still arrogant demigod to join her, and it isn't any easier navigating the ocean and its vast dangers with him either.

Moana is pretty much Disney to a t, right down to having Little Mermaid/Aladdin/Hercules and The Princess and the Frog directors Ron Clements and John Musker in charge. Like those old Disney classics, and like Frozen for that matter, they also know well enough to bring a Broadway veteran over to craft their songs, in this case Hamilton sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda instead of Alan Menken.

By all those various high standards, Moana has a long ways to go. It certainly helps that they have a big, bright canvas of oceans and Pacific Island landscapes for their animators to play with. Between those visual treats, the movements of a particularly brainless chicken, the ocean itself as a supporting character, an army of deadly coconut creatures, a realm of monsters, Maui's own living tattoos and more, the animators have a lot to take advantage of and run with to the hilt.

Of course, visual wonders come with the territory for Disney animation. Even so, they come in handy whenever Moana threatens to lose its way or the narrative. Whenever its more spellbinding visual and emotional sequences unfold, and there are more than a few of them, it truly does feel like Disney is taking us to another world.

Then again, that world still has a few familiar blueprints. While Disney has never shown a Hawaiian/Pacific lead character before, they've had more than a few lead characters caught between two worlds, defying their family/father to leave their home, bringing along an animal sidekick or two, and coming across a more motormouthed partner who softens over time.

Perhaps it would be less conspicuous if Moana didn't directly follow Zootopia, which ultimately brought darker edges and more current social relevance to the usual Disney territory. While Zootopia did in fact go into deeper and harsher waters, Moana stays within a slightly more limited reef, which is actually the biggest irony of all for a story like this.

But while Moana is a bit more obviously calculated, it flat out dares the audience not to come along and dive in anyway. Making such a thing nearly impossible is one of the better long standing Disney traditions, and it is fulfilled here rather easily over time.

The building block for all that is Moana herself, although having a lead female character who isn’t a traditional princess and isn’t pining for love isn’t so revolutionary these days, even for modern day Disney. Still, while Moana is caught between the land and the sea, she isn’t exactly unhappy at home like others before her, as she would be more than capable and pleased to stay and lead her people if not for her constant yearning. But that same need to serve and save her people is what helps push her into the sea once and for all.

Moana’s ultimate push forward comes from her grandmother, voiced by a scene-stealing Rachel House, and the discovery of her people’s true history. In this, Moana finds some of its deeper meaning through one of its more transfixing sequences and musical numbers, fittingly sung by Miranda himself. If anything, the story of a people who have forgotten their history as voyagers and explorers, who retreated from that tradition out of fear from a darker world, and who no longer remember where they truly come from is fitting for today’s times, and is certainly right up the musical alley of the creator of Hamilton.

Once this fuels Moana to head off dry land, the little stumbles it took to get there are more easily forgotten. Miranda’s music and the usual stirring Disney touches make it hard not to get swept away when Moana gets through the waves and sets sail, which also helps sum up the movie as a whole when all is said and done.

Getting through those initial waves is the easy part for Moana, compared to what happens when she finds the rather difficult Maui. Since Clements and Musker helped make Aladdin, it is a bit hard not to see Maui as their new Genie, right down to the crazy shapeshifting and the A-list voice. Of course, the Genie never had an ego like Maui’s, and had Robin Williams running off one-liners instead of Dwayne Johnson.

When Johnson hasn’t been throwing around bad guys in action films, or becoming the newfound sexiest man alive, he has been building himself as one of the more unlikely but reliable funny men in the business. That continues for him in Moana, even with a musical number and with an even more exaggerated animated body, if possible. As a result, Disney has no trouble working its usual buddy comedy formula and banter, including the now requisite jab or two at past Disney films and traditions.

Johnson may help give Maui the bigger lines and theatricality, yet it stops short of turning Moana into the Maui show, although Maui certainly wouldn’t have minded if it didn’t. Nevertheless, while Johnson gets the comedy spotlight, it is still in service of Moana’s story and self-discovery, instead of overwhelming it.

Moana and Maui’s parallels emerge soon enough, as they were both plucked from nowhere for reasons they don’t quite understand to serve a larger purpose. But that can also apply to Moana’s own voice actress, since newcomer Auli’i Cravalho was chosen by the Disney Gods in similar fashion after an extensive casting search. And just as taking Moana and Maui from small beginnings to something bigger pays off, so does finding Cravalho as well.

Through her work and that of the animators, Moana herself is the film’s anchor over choppy and perhaps time honored waters. But as she overcomes more and more obstacles, banters with and outwits Maui, and becomes overwhelmed with doubt and her own identity crisis at times, her personal breakthroughs are all the more earned and meaningful. She is meant to be a new kind of inspirational not-quite princess, and it’s hard to dismiss that this is surely how many girls and other kinds of viewers will indeed see her, as she stands taller even without Maui and helps more than just herself and Maui realize and remember who they are meant to be.

In this context, Moana does exactly what it sets out to do, just as the vast majority of Disney made and produced films have done lately. Yet perhaps in that exact context, it might make it easier to cut Disney a little more slack than it might have gotten years earlier, whether or not that is really a good thing.

Zootopia and Frozen did more to push the Disney animated envelope, at least in terms of storytelling, while Frozen still likely holds the bar in recent Disney music despite Miranda’s assistance for Moana. But even in falling just short by those high standards, it is in no means a major step backwards.

Moana reinforces Disney’s power, how it has gotten even stronger in the last few years, and how its tricks have kept enduring for decades no matter what setting or culture they are put in. Much has still changed, with Moana being the latest landmark in just how much change there has been, yet the old and the new keeps blending together to push Disney into greater oceans.

The waves made by its most stunning, emotional and musical sequences, by Cravalho and Johnson and by the rest of Disney’s bag of tricks push Moana to a 7.5 rating, although it is closer to a 7 than an 8 on the official TMN.com scale.