Review: Moana (2016)

“There’s just no telling how far I’ll go”

*This review may contain spoilers*

Moana is a Disney animated musical adventure directed by John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), which was nominated for two Oscars including Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song for “How Far I’ll Go”. At the risk of her island being ravaged by a mysterious black disease, Moana sets sail in search of the demigod Maui, in the hope of returning the heart of Te Fiti.

Unlike some of the more recent Disney releases, Moana’s goal isn’t to sell tickets, toys or sequels, but instead feels like a solid standalone family film made from passion rather than to turn a profit. It is subjected to the same Disney formula that we have seen done over and over; the mandatory Disney princess who does the one thing she’s not supposed to do, the animal sidekick and comic relief and the argumentative relationship of our two leads forced to work together. The filmmakers are aware of these tropes and even has Maui poke fun at them during the film, yet takes each of the criteria and attempts to perfect them to superb results. Moana’s strong-willed, independent and adventurous personality is a product of her environment and doesn’t feel forced by the filmmakers to be the character that young female viewers can draw motivation from. She isn’t at all good at sailing but she takes to it because she has no other options, which gives a far more believable personality than many of the naive Disney princess’ we have seen classically, or the modern Mary Sue princess’ that seem to be relentless in almost every recent Disney release (Bo Peep from Toy Story 4!). Moana’s rooster sidekick Hei Hei is ludicrously stupid and invariably hilarious, earning all the screen time it gets, but she also has a second companion called Pua that plays little to no part in the entire story. Only appearing at the start and end of the movie, Pua seems like an out of place, last minute idea but is adorable and gives us some funny moments, so we can let this slide.

It’s obvious that Maui was designed with one actor in mind to play him: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. At one point, Maui performs “The people’s eyebrow” and it plays right to my childhood, so bonus points are awarded for paying tribute to the slightly older viewers. Maui’s bravado and Johnson’s natural charisma pair perfectly, causing viewers to overlook his glaring character flaws: that being his ignorance and his sole motivation to do anything is to boost his own ego. I admire how the film builds a villainous picture of Maui before we have met him, a fresh take on the character profile that is usually just there to outweigh our leads physical disadvantages. If it wasn’t for Johnson’s personality bursting from this character, I wouldn’t have been as invested in Maui as I was Moana, particularly given the final scene in which he comes back to be the hero for no describable reason at all. Even his final apology seems apathetic, but we can eventually boil this down to his intense self-absorbance. However, Maui’s redeeming trait is his conscious tattoo version of himself, that forces Maui to act as the audience needs him to, visually portraying that perhaps all his flaws are simply external projections and that he is the hero we want him to be at a personal level. Well played Disney, well played. Given that the ocean plays such a significant role in Moana, it was also a great addition to bring this to life to visually beautiful results.

For the first two acts, Moana is an intensely funny movie surprisingly for both adults and children. I found myself laughing out loud more than I have with most recent comedies, and not just at the stupid chicken. The Mad-Max inspired coconut pirates had me in stitches and the scenes where Moana intensely wants to take control of the situation come back with an emotional bang. As with most Disney musicals, the score integrates effectively to push the story forward. Immediately after the movie, I found myself heading straight for Alexa to ask for the Moana soundtrack at full volume. The songs are catchy, dramatic and at several points, beautifully sentimental. Every song plays to a different method of engaging viewers visually, from differing animation styles in “You’re Welcome” to a kooky light show in “Shiny”. This musical scene with the giant crab however, as exciting as it is, was messy and hard to follow, which required me turning on subtitles to understand the lyrics being sung.

When it comes to combining both the score and the animation, there are two scenes that had me utterly captivated: in the first act where baby Moana steps into the ocean and at the end, when she parts the sea like Moses and walks towards the colossal lava monster. If you’ve seen Moana I shouldn’t have to explain, but these are two of the most touching scenes from an animated movie I think I have ever seen and act as perfect bookends to solidify this movie as one of Disney’s more recent masterpieces. I’m not proficient enough to justify these scenes in words so I won’t bother trying, but they are both contenders for the most beautiful shots in animation history.

When Moana and Maui reach Te Fiti for the first time, I was left feeling a little empty and needing more from the film. Luckily, Moana pulls an exciting twist in which our heroes fail their mission the first time around, boosting me back into the film after some pace halting dialogue scenes at sea. Although they are necessary, these passive scenes had my 25-year-old partner reaching for her phone, which makes me curious as to how far the attention span of a child might last comparatively.

Moana is an instant modern-classic and cements itself as a top-tier Disney adventure. With one of the most consistently entertaining soundtracks since The Lion king, Moana takes the standard Disney formula and attempts to squeeze every last bit of magic from its charming characters, in a Polynesian backdrop that really cares about its source material. These filmmakers have listened to their critics and created an animated adventure that seems a notch over most of its predecessors. I give Moana a 9/10! You’re welcome!

If you liked this review, please comment or share this post for others. If you have any similar or, even better, conflicting opinions of Moana, please comment to open a healthy debate.

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