What do you get if you throw a little of every Disney Princess story into one big film? Well, you’d get an incredible tale of a girl trying to discover her purpose in life. Now take that idea, put a little Hawaiian spin on it, and you’ve got Moana, Disney Animation’s latest creation. Moana comes from the creators of Zootopia, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King, and those influences certainly shine through after 5 years of development. Moana follows a teenage girl who lives on the island of Motonui in Oceania. After her island starts to die, Moana sets out to fulfill an ancient prophecy involving the powerful demigod Maui, along with her dimwitted rooster Hei Hei, in hopes of bringing light back to Motonui. While the story has some hiccups, the lovable characters and songs make up for its pitfalls, providing Moana with the Disney charm it deserves.
The story of Moana begins with the typical Disney formula; teen girl, trying to find her place in the world, ventures out on an epic quest with a comical sidekick, to save the ones she loves. This time around, the unique setting and strong Polynesian undertones make for an interesting turn of events. Moana is the daughter of her village’s chief, which makes her a true princess (no prince required), and while he tries to keep her safe on the island, she feels the ocean calls out to her, beckoning her to explore. This is due to her unique gift; Moana shares a connection with the water and can bend it to her will. This power is constantly evident throughout the story, but it’s never quite used to its full potential. While the film is about Moana finding herself, she never really tries to harness her power or learn why she was given this gift. It just is, and she wields this power increasingly as time goes on. But this leaves the audience to wonder why she is so gifted, much like Elsa’s ice powers in Frozen. It can be a bit alienating, which frequently makes the story seem disjointed.
Moana doesn’t feel like it has a lot of downtime, as the visuals and songs will keep you entertained, but it does take a while for things to get off the ground. Almost halfway through the film is when she finally meets Maui, the demigod who caused Motonui to die in the first place. Dwayne Johnson shines as Maui, and he, along with his eccentrically animated tattoos, is the movie’s greatest strength in my opinion. Not to mention his singing voice, and even his rap game, both of which are on point, though extremely underutilized. I feel as though we’ve never truly taken Dwayne Johnson seriously as an actor outside of his action movie roles. But Moana is certainly a standout performance for the ex-pro wrestler. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho also delivers a stellar performance as the titular heroine, full of emotion and promise. Occasionally, I had a hard time believably matching her voice to her on-screen persona. It just didn’t feel like her delicate talking voice fit with the role. But when she belts out one of those beautiful, Disney-caliber anthems, there’s no question she belongs in the pantheon of legendary Disney characters. She’ll make quite a memorable princess.
Getting back to the issue with Moana’s sluggishness, many scenes are spent reminiscing about the past, and Moana’s own ancestors. I understand that these moments are meant to introduce you to many Hawaiian traditions and legends. The entire film itself is a love letter to the Polynesian islands. Songs like “We Know the Way” explain the lifestyle of voyagers who founded the land upon which Moana takes place. But it’s moments like these that bring Moana’s pace to a slow crawl. This didn’t have to be the case, either. For example, Beauty and the Beast was heavily influenced by French culture, as Pocahontas was Native American, and Mulan was Chinese. But these classics never feel bogged down by their dedication to tradition. They use this culture as a method of storytelling, rather than placing it in the film as a history lesson. Moana’s reliance on ancient prophecies, gods, and ancestry made it seem even more cluttered than a film like Hercules, which is completely about Greek mythology. It just wasn’t integrated very well here and felt like a distraction.
Fortunately, Moana offered some great distractions in the form of songs. Expert lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Broadway’s Hamilton fame, was tapped by Disney to write the tunes for Moana. While these songs are very few and far between, they are necessary for the story progression, and they even assist in fleshing out the film’s characters better than the narrative itself does. “You’re Welcome”, for instance, is a catchy-as-hell song sung (and rapped) by Johnson’s Maui. As the title implies, it is an ego-centric jingle referring to Maui’s involvement in the islands’ creation, according to Polynesian legend. As it goes on, he gets increasingly more big-headed and ends up stealing Moana’s boat, nearly leaving her stranded on a deserted island. These narrative songs are very reminiscent of Miranda’s established writing style and are a nice change of pace from the typical Disney love songs (which I’ll get back to later). It was hard, though, to see Moana as a musical. In reality, there are only about 10 songs in the movie, and nearly half of them aren’t even in English. You most likely won’t be memorizing many songs from Moana, but the ones that do stick with you are worth every listen.
My personal favorite was “How Far I’ll Go”, an epic anthem sung by Moana herself. This song serves as the basis for the film and sparks Moana’s personal desire for adventure. It is mimicked within the background score throughout the whole movie and is even revisited in a reprise or two. It’s basically Moana’s version of “For the First Time in Forever” (to reference Frozen again). The song is the perfect fit for a teenager trying to find her way in the open world. It is also here where the film reveals its parallels to many other Disney classics. Songs like “Reflection” and “Part of Your World” come to mind, as I picture familiar girls with similar struggles to Moana, trying to make their mark on the world. Even better is the fact that “How Far I’ll Go” is sung just as beautifully as it is written. Cravalho is such an amazing vocalist, which I find fascinating as she was basically a 14-year-old nobody before this film. Then she came along and Disney whisked her up into the opportunity of a lifetime. Thankfully, she did not disappoint. Nor did Lin-Manuel Miranda who, with new classics like the “Belle”-esque “Where You Are” and the villainous “Shiny” – sung by Jemaine Clement with his best David Bowie impression – solidified himself as a true Disney songwriter with Moana. He’s now in the big leagues with the likes of Alan Menken and Tim Rice, and rightfully so.
Earlier I mentioned how Moana seems to stray from Disney’s typical love story formula. It’s hard to imagine, I’m sure, but Moana truly has no prince, and no obvious love interest whatsoever. Maui is a full-grown man, and Hei Hei is a chicken, so Moana really has no one to fall in love with on her journey. The story mainly revolves around her love for Motonui and its people and bringing life back to her island. Herein lays the love story at hand. Moana’s love for her family is the real heart of the film, not unlike Frozen, which was about two sisters struggling to find their love for one another. Although Frozen did manage to sneak two love interests in as well. But I assure you, there is not a single kiss in Moana, which makes for a very intriguing Disney movie. The lack of an apparent love story takes away a lot of the predictability. It’s an interesting premise to base a tale on history and family, rather than true love for a being of the opposite sex. It makes for a deeper meaning, and unfortunately, it didn’t always work in Moana. But I’m pleased to admit I was never completely sure about what would happen next, and what the final outcome would be. It kept me engaged; as if the striking visuals didn’t do that enough already!
This brings me to my final point: Moana’s beauty. Every new Disney movie that is released seems to be the best looking Disney movie released. I remember how long I basked in Frozen’s glory with the way Elsa’s castle grew forth from the ground and all of the details down to the visible freckles on Anna’s shoulders. Before that, I was amazed by things like Rapunzel’s hair, and Big Hero 6’s over-the-top action sequences. Even Zootopia pushed some boundaries earlier this year with fine points like fur effects and scope. But Moana was a new level of spectacle altogether, and that alone makes it a must-see, personally. Every detail, from the water effects to the way each character’s hair swayed in the wind and across their shoulders, to the beastly sight of the film’s villain Te Ka; everything is a sight to behold. I want to see the film again just to take in its entire splendor once more. A true standout was the Realm of Monsters, which Maui and Moana visit to retrieve the former’s magical hook. The neon colors and the sinister creatures lurking beneath the depths were intense and dare I say it, frightening. I wasn’t expecting some of the unsettling scenes in this specific locale. Not that a child wouldn’t be able to handle it, unlike the story at times, but I suppose some creepy images may be a little too much for some. You have been warned. But overall, Moana’s visual beauty is what kept my eyes glued to the screen throughout, and what has made a lasting impression on me for a couple of weeks now.
Moana may not be the greatest story told by Disney, but it just may be the greatest-LOOKING one. Where the story falls short at times – especially when trying to call upon its roots – the outstanding visuals, toe-tapping melodies, and loveable relatable characters make up for it tenfold. There are even more characters I never mentioned, such as the wise Gramma Tala, who brought me to tears more than once. And Pua, the vastly underused pet pig of Moana, who has been seen more in the film’s marketing than he was on-screen (seriously, Pua is the film’s unsung hero). Moana’s small cast left such an impact on me that I can’t wait to see it again, and until then I’ll just be belting out the unforgettable songs in the shower. It may not be an instant classic, and it’s certainly not the next Frozen, but Moana has everything it needs to stand with the rest of the best.