Disney films have the impressive capacity to seamlessly blend fun, engaging stories with some of the best-worst earworm songs movies can produce. For anyone who may disagree with this, ask someone with kids what life was like after the thousandth small child rendition of “Let It Go”. To call Disney’s animated features anything short of magical, in most cases, feels like an outright lie, and Moana fits right into their established pantheon of princesses very nicely.
The film sets audiences up with some backstory about the demi-god Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), self-proclaimed hero to all, and how he was something of a trickster. He steals the heart of the goddess Te Fiti with the intention of presenting it to the human race, as it bestows the power of creation to any who possess it. Unfortunately, because it’s a green, glowing, and very powerful bauble, Maui ends up attracting unwanted attention from others who hope to possess the heart—among whom is Te Ka the lava demon. Te Ka knocks Maui out of the sky, causing him to lose his magical fish hook (and, along with it, his shapeshifting powers) as well as the heart of Te Fiti.
Darkness spreads from island to island, and the entirety of Maui’s plan starts to look really bad in hindsight. Moana (voiced by Auli’l Cravalho) comes into play when the ocean chooses her, a thousand years after the events with Maui, to retrieve the demi-god, find the heart, and restore Te Fiti. Driven by her desire to journey beyond the reef, well past her village’s boundaries designated by previous village chiefs, and egged on by her grandmother, Moana sets off with Heihei the rooster (voiced, to use the word loosely, by Alan Tudyk).
Moana presents a wonderful story tackling the difficulty of balancing tradition with growth—both on the personal and societal level. Both Maui and Moana develop significantly as characters, helping build each other up along the way. They have a dynamic that is equal parts comical and heart-warming, and though it could be argued that Maui’s development as a character does seem to take center stage at points it was clear that both characters went on quite the journey from when Moana embarks to retrieve Maui and restore Te Fiti until…Well, go see the movie.
Moana is a shining gem amidst a sea of childhood memories dragged up and spruced up.
Cravalho’s performance as Moana is particularly noteworthy, given Moana is her debut performance in voice acting. Moana’s success as a character is in no small part thanks to Cravalho’s approach to her portrayal of the title character, and though Moana is easily lumped in with the other Disney princesses—even, as Maui points out, because she is the daughter of a chief and has an animal sidekick—it is clear that Disney was onto something great when casting this role, and at only sixteen years old audiences can hope this is just the first of many strong, female leads voiced by Auli’l Cravalho.
The animation is par-for-the-course for Disney, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing so much as expected. The dialogue and musical numbers are where Moana really shines, however. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opeteia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina crafted a memorable soundtrack with catchy, comedy-driven tunes like Maui’s “You’re Welcome” (with major props to Dwayne Johnson for belting this song out like a champ) and the troublesome Tomatoa’s “Shiny” as well as the kind of epic tracks expected of Disney princess movies such as “We Know the Way”, “Where You Are”, and “How Far I’ll Go”.
With the impending glut of Disney live action films spawned by nostalgia for older Disney animated features, Moana is a shining gem amidst a sea of childhood memories dragged up and spruced up. (Not to say, of course, Beauty and the Beast won’t be great.) However, without even considering the Disney money-printing method that is recycling old works, churning out endless sequels and prequels, and finding new ways to retell familiar stories in unfamiliar ways, Moana is certainly a movie worth venturing out to the cinema to enjoy. Just don’t blame me for any intrusive bits of soundtrack that linger after seeing it.
By Phil Gorski
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