Arts movie review

Moana is a delightful new breed of empowering Disney princess movie

A heart-warming, smile-inducing, toe-tapping romp across the open waters

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Moana follows its titular character on both a literal and figurative journey of self-discovery.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

Directed by John Musker, Ron Clements
Starring Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk
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The recipe for a hit Disney animated film is no trade secret. Start with a strong, young female protagonist (usually a princess), and a trusty animal sidekick, sprinkle in a generous dose of family-friendly humor, throw in an internal conflict that is cleverly mirrored in an external struggle, add a deliciously theatrical villain, round it out with a collection of toe-tapping songs, and garnish with a few sprigs of magic and messages of self-empowerment. However, Disney has sustained quite a bit of flak over the years for propagating racist, sexist, or generally non-inclusive undertones in some of their older films. With Moana, they have done an astounding job of subverting these criticisms while still maintaining the fun spark that makes Disney movies so universally beloved.

Moana follows its titular 16 year-old character Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) as she struggles to come to terms with her ever-present yearning for the open waters, and her responsibility as the next chieftain to stay behind with her people. In the opening scenes, the legends of Oceania are unraveled for viewers via a mesmerizing sequence of animated paper cuts that tell the tale of how shape-shifting demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) once stole the heart of Te Fiti, the mother island. The ensuing darkness that sweeps across the waters threatens the well-being of the many islanders who call the Pacific Ocean home. To save her people, Moana sets sail to find Maui and force him to return the heart of Te Fiti back to its rightful place.

Like any good Disney movie worth its salt, Moana tethers its lighthearted comedy and rousing action to a central, uplifting theme. This time around, it’s self-discovery. Paralleling her physical voyage across uncharted waters and the real world obstacles she must overcome, Moana is faced with an internal journey where she questions not only her heritage, but also her sense of self. It’s ultimately an uplifting message that will resonate not only with teens and children, Disney’s primary target demographic, but with anyone who has ever questioned themselves or their direction in life.

Along the way, Moana and Maui come face to face with tiny pirate coconuts, a sparkly, self-absorbed crustacean named Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), and a flaming lava demon, among other things. Though Tamatoa certainly steals the show with the oddly catchy 1970s glam rock number “Shiny,” Moana strays from the traditional one-villain structure and instead opts for a trio of distinctly different baddies.

The good guys, too, are memorable in their own ways. Johnson successfully imbues the arrogant and sometimes oblivious demi-god Maui with a vulnerability and likeability that gives his character a heartwarming depth. Gramma Tala (Rachel House) is the self-proclaimed crazy village lady, and she plays the classic wise elder role with comedic aplomb, à la Grandmother Fa from Mulan or Rafiki from The Lion King.

The dark horse contender for best character, however, is Heihei (Alan Tudyk), Moana’s mute, cross-eyed chicken who accompanies her on her adventures. The colorful fowl draws raucous laughter from moviegoers with each increasingly absurd act, including attempting to eat rocks and walking into walls over and over again. It’s a slapstick physical comedy routine that works wonders in small doses, but toward the end of the film, some might find it a little repetitive.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the sumptuous audiovisual landscape into which the audience is immediately immersed. The animations are absolutely stunning, with a painstaking attention to detail — from the grains of sand, to the swirls of ocean water, to the way that the sunlight glints off dewy leaves. Vibrant colors and cinematic pans of sweeping tropical scenery create the perfect backdrop to the equally engrossing characters and plot.

Of course, music and spontaneous song breaks are also crucial ingredients in any Disney film, and Moana delivers on that front too with a genre-diverse collection of songs composed by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame.

Whether or not you are already a Disney fan, Moana is a fresh adventure with heart and humor that can’t be missed. And don’t be surprised if you leave the theater with an enormous grin and a melody or two stuck in your head.