Every once in a while a film will be released that I have a personal connection with. It will remind me of a time in my life or a person and those are the most prized films of all. I kind of knew going into Moana that it would be that kind of film, but I had no idea how much I would truly connect with it. I have a deep and abiding love for Polynesia and the islands so just the setting alone seemed made for me but everything else about it struck the perfect note making it a very special experience. However, I don’t think my life experiences are essential in appreciating the film. It’s just a great Disney movie that I think everyone, young and old should experience in the theater while you have the chance.
There are so many great things about Moana I almost don’t know where to begin, but let’s start with the title character. Moana is the daughter of a chief who receives a calling from the sea as a baby. The water in this film is an actual character that watches over Moana and even gives the occasional high five (as a huge ocean fan I LOVED that)!
Despite her connection, Moana is told by her father that she must stay on the island. I liked that she was the next to rule and her sex wasn’t a factor at all. She’s treated like any other character. They are all not allowed to leave the reef. But when the coconuts and island start decaying Moana must go on a mission to return the heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, to its rightful place. I liked that Moana was a fairly normal looking girl and she behaved like a normal girl. For example, her first attempt to attack the reef and leave the island goes badly. This showed her infallibility and that she would have to work to get everything she got. Yes she has a connection with the ocean but things do not come easy for her at all. To restore the heart, she must find Maui, a disgruntled demigod, who has lost his magic hook that allows him to shape-shift. They are a classic odd couple on a mission but it is executed so well. Maui also has tattoos that interact with him and tell him what to do. This was very clever and funny. Dwayne, the Rock, Johnson was perfect casting for the role of Maui. He oozes charisma out of every pore and aside from not having the greatest singing voice was so much fun even when he was resisting Moana’s arguments. There’s just something so innately likable about the guy even in his voice. Plus, he is from Samoan ancestry and I think you can feel that kind of personal connection in the performance.
As the two journey, they face all kinds of obstacles like Mad-Max inspired coconut pirates, a lava monster and a giant hoarding crab. These were all very creative and fun foes. I particularly loved the crab Tamotoa voiced by Jemaine Clement, who is absolutely hilarious.
There is a lovely heart to Moana’s journey as she is trying to do something unselfish and kind for her people while also exploring her own identity. If you are someone who didn’t like Elsa running away from her problems (not me!), Moana should be your princess. She faces them head on but she also shows moments of weakness and fear. She was just a tremendous character. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho was amazing as Moana. What a find they got in her. I loved her vocal performance and her singing. She made me care about the character and her journey throughout the film.
Other standouts of the film are the comedy, which they nailed. The chicken Heihei I thought was a riot and the jokes from Maui and other characters were great. It also never gets too dark or scary, so it is a true family film. Everyone can go and be inspired and dazzled whether you are 3 or 103!
The music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina (score) was perfect. I loved every song and my only critique is they could have had a few more. The standout song is called How Far I’ll Go. It is stunning.
The animation is beautiful, which is perhaps no surprise from directors Ron Clements and John Musker. I loved the look of the water and island locals. It was so real I wanted to reach out and touch it! They also did creative things I wasn’t expecting. There are some 2D elements and some character designs that reminded me of the Disney renaissance. Moana is as great visually as anything the pair has done and that is coming from someone who LOVES Little Mermaid. It takes advantage of CG animation in a way Disney has never done before. It uses the medium to give a lush and immersive experience that you couldn’t have with 2D.
I really don’t have that much negative to say about Moana. Sure the story embraces certain tropes but I have no problem with a formula story if it is executed well and this is. Plus, it has enough creativity, like with the coconut pirates or Moana’s tattoos, to keep things fresh and exciting.
I suppose a few minor nitpicks for me is The Rock’s voice isn’t that good but it works for the song. They could have used Pua the pig more especially given the marketing. There were also 2 jokes with a modern flair to them that I think took me out of the movie for a second. Those worked in Zootopia but I don’t think in this type of story.
I waited to write this review because I wanted to let it sink in and make sure I wasn’t giving unearned hyperbole. Now after 6 days I can say that for me Moana is not only my favorite movie of the year but it is one of my all time favorite Disney movies. I liked Moana even more than Frozen or Tangled, which are top 10 Disney films in my eyes. I loved just about everything about it. It spoke to me and my life experience in a personal way and made me so happy. I loved the music, characters, animation, setting, everything.
In my opinion, Moana is why we go to the movies- to get swept away in a world and story and to occasionally see a bit of yourself staring back at you on the screen. Moana did that for me. You should all see it and then see it again. Take your kids, especially your girls, and let them be swept away in this latest wonderful Disney Princess story.
Overall Grade- A+
There is also a short called Inner Workings that I loved but will review on its own later.