Moana (2016): A Review

Since 2010’s Tangled, Walt Disney Animation Studios has worked hard to rebuild the reputation it once had. With Pixar’s John Lassiter at the helm, the studio has successfully migrated to computer animation, and following in the footsteps of an incredible run including Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph and this year’s Zootopia, may have delivered one of its finest family musicals yet – the 56th Walt Disney Animation film, the beautiful and transcendent Moana.

Moana is the story of a girl. Not a princess, as much as some may want to call her. Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is a teenager who is in line to become the chief of a Polynesian tribe, after her proud father. They have a beautiful life on a beautiful island, and all seems well, until Moana’s grandmother reveals to her an ancient curse which explains the poor harvest the island has seen in recent years. See, a millennia ago, a demigod named Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, as charismatic as ever) stole “The Heart of Te Fiti” from an island goddess, which cursed the islands created by that same goddess.

You can see where this is going – Moana needs to find Maui, and return the Heart of Te Fiti, in an adventure which will redefine Moana and her entire life.

AND WHAT A THRILLING ADVENTURE IT IS!

Featuring some of the most beautiful animation ever put to film, this is a beautiful, eye grabbing, jaw dropping romp which sends us all across the ocean, into a world filled with lava monsters, giant crabs obsessed with treasure, stupid chickens, and yes – a Mad Max: Fury Road inspired chase sequence involving ill-tempered coconut wearing pirates called Kakamora.

Every second of Moana’s 113 minute run-time is filled with something to marvel at, whether the artistry at hand (look at the water animation! AND THE HAIR!), the warmth and heart of the story, the strong humor, or the incredible music, written by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i, and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda.

There are a number of musical standouts within the film, including Maui’s big number “You’re Welcome” (which I haven’t stopped humming since I left the theater) and the Bowie-esq “Shiny”, performed by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement (the aforementioned giant crab). But the strongest, and boldest work, is “We Know The Way”, a beautiful song written in both English and the Tokelauan language, which speaks to the level of cultural depth in this film. The movie doesn’t shy away from embracing the Polynesian culture, and is all the stronger for it. And it’s this embracing of the unusual, which makes film’s strongest change-of-Disney-pace even better: Moana, the non Disney Princess Disney Princess.

Moana is a completely self-actualized, strong, independent, ethnically diverse, female character. There is no man to save her, there is no romance to work in, she just gets in, and gets the job done. And the movie doesn’t even make a big deal of it…but for the girls and women of many ages who will see it? This is a very, very big deal, and I applaud Disney for it.

Moana is filled with laughs, songs you’ll love, and characters you’ll enjoy spending time with. The visuals are stunning, the adventure big, and the movie is arguably the best of the current Disney renaissance. If that isn’t enough reason to rush out to theaters, I’m not sure what is. Highest possible recommendation.

ADDITIONAL NOTES: Moana is accompanied in theater’s with a brilliant short, Inner Workings, which is all about the relationship between the heart and the mind. Plus, there’s a post-credits scene. What I’m saying is: arrive early, stay late.

Moana is in theaters now.