Better late than never, I always say! After waiting for what seemed like an eternity (at least by winter snow and holiday standards), I have finally been able to view the newest addition to the Walt Animation Studios Company. Featuring stunning visuals and powerful music, Moana (2016) is the most recent film to be directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the dynamic duo of directors behind Disney Renaissance classics like The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992). But will their new film prove to be an exciting and epic high-seas adventure? Or will it sink like a volcanic rock? Let’s sail into this newest AFA review to find out!
Our Polynesian myth starts with the story of Creation. At the beginning of time, an ancient goddess named Te Fiti rose from the ocean depths and created thousands of flourishing islands, but she had numerous enemies who sought to steal her one source of power: a pounamu stone called the Heart of Te Fiti, blessed with the power to bear life. One trickster, the demigod Maui succeeded in stealing the Heart to give to humanity, but his theft plunged the world into chaos, spawning the fire demon Te Kā and allowing monsters to roam free.
Wow… With a foundation this powerful, dramatic, and captivating, Disney must have hit gold with the rest of the film, right?
Unfortunately, this opening I just described is a polar opposite to the tone set by the rest of the movie. All drama and intensity of this powerful Creation tale is eventually lost in a bubbling cauldron of choppy dialogue, predictable plot lines, and some very bizarre exposition. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Ali, you are being far too critical of this story. After all, Disney Renaissance films and Golden Age masterpieces aren’t without their flaws. And I would reiterate by saying that this statement is absolutely, 100% correct.
But this same statement also defines the problem with Moana. The storytellers and artists have literally combined all the elements from the Disney Renaissance films. The entire concept of an independent girl seeking more out of life is a motif used so much that it’s actually been dubbed a Disney Princess cliché, and we have seen this story played out in The Little Mermaid (ironically another Musker/Clements film), Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tangled, and Brave (see what I’m getting at?). Also, the idea of a wary parent becoming an enemy to their child due to restrictive ways and a troubled past…yet another recycled concept. Also, the use of Americanized slang and pretentious bodily humor (which occurs THREE TIMES) completely shatters a wall of believability. Nothing in this movie feels particularly fresh or new.
That is except for one element: the mythology. Disney films have tackled Greek and Chinese myths before, but Moana is oozing with Polynesian lore and culture. And you know what? This part of the story is absolutely incredible. The concept of returning to the sea after death, the vision of a sentient ocean spirit bonding with a toddler, the flashback to the ancient ways of the Polynesian sailors…good grief, Disney! Why couldn’t that have been the ENTIRE focus of the film? Moana could have easily become the animated version of Whale Rider for children!
So, in conclusion, the bad stuff in this move is horrendous.
But the good stuff is unbelievably amazing!
Much like the plot, the characters are mostly hit or miss, with a few exceptions along the way. Overall, I was not really impressed by the designs for the main cast or ensemble, mostly because the rounded, soft look of their faces and bodies gave them the appearance of bouncy toys. To me, that does not resonate well with the exoticism of Polynesian folklore. Give the designers for Brother Bear some credit for fleshing out the human characters to look like actual Inuit people. However, I have to say that the performances of the actors do add some flavor to these otherwise bland characters….sometimes.
The protagonist and namesake of the film, Moana Waialiki (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Chief Tui and next in line to rule the island of Motunui. As a toddler, she was chosen to become the savior of her nation by restoring the heart of Te Fiti to return balance to the world, which is quite a task for a young girl. For me, Moana is one of the most beautiful female characters ever to appear on screen, and that soft-focus design I mentioned looks amazing on her. And, as the Disney Princess formula goes, Moana isn’t really that bad. She is funny, sarcastic, and very cheerful, but she also acts like a real teenager. At times, she can easily be distracted by her love for the sea, but Moana also recognizes the gravity of certain situations, much like Mulan or Pocahontas. In her feature role, Cravalho does an amazing job as a speaker and singer, so I have to give her kudos for adding a certain zing to this adorable Disney heroine. I just wish she had a bit more personality.
Now let’s get to the elephant in the room…or perhaps the demigod in the room: Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Big, bodacious, and outspoken, this character serves as a source of comic relief and slapstick, as well as a driving force behind the events of the film. He is the thief whole stole the Heart of Te Fiti, and it is Moana’s duty to force him to restore the stone to its rightful place. You would think that a character like this would run along the lines of Hercules or Captain Phoebus, but, unfortunately, he falls victim to a snarky script and ridiculous in-jokes. And that’s a real shame, because I really do like this character and had high expectations for him! I mean, for pity’s sake! This is a man who pulled islands out of the sea, wrestled sea monsters, and bested the gods themselves!. Maui should have been interesting, but he ends up feeling like a fish-out-of-water. However, I applaud Johnson for his delivery and his singing voice (which we will get to in a moment). You can tell the wrestling legend really loved this role and put his heart and soul into it, not unlike James Woods with Hades or Robin Williams with the Genie. If there is one good quality that I like about Maui, it is the way the animators used his series of tattoos (no, I’m not giving anything away here). However, his basic design really isn’t that spectacular or attractive, but he does stand out from the crowd!
A particularly clever character is Gramma Tala (voiced by Rachel House), Moana’s grandmother. I absolutely love elderly female characters that are spunky and sarcastic, and this “village crazy lady” definitely fits this bill. Much like Grandma from Mulan or Granny from My Neighbor Totoro, Tala is a wisecracking youth trapped in an aged body, a woman with a vivid imagination and a love for life that is reciprocated by her granddaughter. Tala is the one who sparks Moana’s fascination for the ocean and encourages her to continue the ways of their ancestors, the ancient Seafarers, and I loved every moment this snarky lady was on screen!
Now, in keeping with Polynesian folklore, the movie also teases us with a monster named Tamatoa, a giant beast who stole Maui’s fishhook and dwells in Lalotai (the realm of Monsters). When I heard his name and backstory, I was itching to see the next Disney villain, some evil creature not unlike the Moon King from Kubo and the Two Strings. But what did we get? A giant talking crab with the voice of the Cockatiel from Rio.
Come on, Disney! You’re more creative than this!
As for the rest of the characters, they pretty much serve as plot points that inspire Moana or Maui to take action and save the day. Chief Tui (voiced by Jango Fett himself, Temeura Morrison) and his wife Sina (Nicole Scherzinger) are kindhearted but stern parents who wish for Moana to live a peaceful life as ruler of her people. Pua the pig (a marketing goldmine for plush toys) is not in the movie for long and actually serves no purpose. The rest of the villagers are there as a choir/ensemble and do not leave much of an impression. Also, I know people might despise me for saying this, but I did not find Heihei the rooster (voiced by Alan Tudyk) funny at all…sorry.
As a musical production, Moana has a soundtrack that is automatically divided into two parts: instrumental and vocal. And, just like the story and the characters, these two parts are counterbalanced, but not always in a good way.
As a little kid, I grew up listening to music from Africa, Japan, India, Wales, Ireland, and the Native American nations. As a result, I have an undying love for cultural music, and the Disney movies have only stirred this adoration throughout the years. From the African music in The Lion King to the haunting melodies of Pocahontas, each classic cartoon is defined by its instrumental score. And let me tell you…Moana boasts some of the most powerful music I have ever heard in my entire life.
Mark Mancina (Disney’s Tarzan) and New Zealand musician Opetaia Foa’i have developed an incredible soundtrack, featuring songs performed in English and Tokelauan, a native Polynesian language. When I first heard this music, I literally got goosebumps. I honestly felt like I had been teleported to a magical place in a distant time, and could practically feel the warmth of the sea and sunshine on screen. Now that is brilliance you cannot train!
And then, of course, there is the musical aspect, the vocal music…and here is where we hit rocky seas yet again. Songs like “Where You Are” and “How Far I’ll Go” are generic Disney songs that don’t really score big points in my book and lagged a bit too long, as far as the plot is concerned. The song “I Am Moana” is a song about recognition and independence, but, once again, it felt like another recycled addition to the Disney Princess theme song. And don’t even get me started on “Shiny,” performed by Jemaine Clement as Tamatoa. Pointless, to the highest degree of pointlessness.
However, amongst these ridiculous numbers, two songs in particular shine brightly.
“We Know the Way,” written by Foa’i and Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame), is the best song in the film and not easily forgotten, rising and falling like a great wave. As the song plays, we are whisked off on a high seas adventure, as Moana’s ancestors journey on giant canoes across the roaring sea, and I did not have dry eyes throughout the entire number. The Polynesian choir, supported by Foa’i and Miranda’s vocals, was outstanding. To me, “We Know the Way” is as beautiful as “Circle of Life” from The Lion King or “The Bells of Notre Dame” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Bravo, gentleman, for giving us a wonderful journey into Polynesian culture through music and poetry! Bravo!
Also, strangely enough, one song I really loved was “You’re Welcome,” performed by Dwayne Johnson as Maui. And you know what? He really is not a bad singer! I remember reading about this number and thinking it would fail miserably. I mean, come on! The Rock singing a Disney song? Boy oh boy, was I wrong! Not only does this song hit home by providing us a charming, upbeat melody and clever lyrics but it also gives us a wonderful first-time singing performance by Johnson. In fact, this song kind of makes me wish Maui had been the main character! This feels like a hero’s bragging song, kind of like the shanty Gaston performs in Beauty and the Beast. And I loved every moment. Talk about a happy surprise!
So, after this mix of criticism and praise, what do I really think of this film?
While it lacks the clever humor of Zootopia and the ethereal beauty of Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana certainly does live up to its expectations in certain ways. Despite numerous flaws with the story, characters, and dialogue, Disney’s latest film provides a clever and witty translation of Polynesian folklore. I would never place this movie at the top of a “must-see-list” for a kid or an adult. But, if you’re looking for a harmless adventure with delightful visuals and powerful instrumental music, then Moana is definitely a film for you!
What did you think of Moana? Was it a hit or a miss? Tell us in the comments below!
Moana is currently playing in U.S. theaters and was released nationally on November 23, 2016. It will be released on Disney DVD and Blu-ray around March 2017, as sources indicate.
To learn more about Moana, visit the official website.