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Moana – Movie Review

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Moana – Movie Review

Rating: A- (Great)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

Walt Disney Animation Studios is on a hot streak right now and part of its current success has been the variety of stories and genres they tell within their animated films. These days, they jump between world-building stories that comment on our modern culture and traditional musicals with spunky heroines. Moana is the latter and unsurprisingly under the command of Ron Clements and John Musker, the directors who helped usher in the current Disney musical era with The Little Mermaid, this is another sweeping and charming adventure with a memorable soundtrack to boot. Rather than taking inspiration from a classic fairy tale, Moana crafts an original story which portrays the South Pacific culture with beauty and respect.

Moana immediately transports the viewer to its Pacific Islands and the mythology of their inhabitants. The film credits consultants from the likes of Fiji, Polynesia and New Zealand and Clements and Musker’s respect for these cultures comes through in every frame. The stories the people of these nations have told their offspring for generations have clearly fueled the creativity of the Disney artists rather than restrict them. The journey Moana goes on may seem episodic, but the encounters with a gang of coconut-wearing pirates, a greedy crab and a volcano monster are all exciting segments with the storyboard artists having a lot of fun with these scenarios. They also provide necessary beats of action between the quieter scenes as Moana and her demi-god companion Maui bond and motivate each other.

Disney Animation is aware of the clichés usually attributed to them, but the studio has always done a more than solid job of reinventing them with each film. Moana taking on her chiefly duties and wanting to help her island are key traits that drive her journey. Her dream to travel out into the open ocean, despite her father’s wishes against it, is not necessarily out of personal want, but rather to save her people. This also ties in nicely with the cultural element featured throughout the film and what Clements, Musker and the animators do with the ocean is highly inventive. Even though Maui is voiced by Dwayne Johnson, he never tries to steal the spotlight from Moana. She is the lead character and while he has an emotional arc of his own, the filmmakers recognise his role in the story. His egotistical personality is one the film has fun with, but the Disney team are also aware of his place in South Pacific culture. Frequent viewers of rugby games will also catch a nod to the Maori dance commonly performed at New Zealand sporting events.

The soundtrack by Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i and rising Hamilton: An American Musical star Lin-Manuel Miranda adds to the beauty of Moana and its portrayal of the Pacific Islands. “We Know the Way” captures the sail-boating theme of the film nicely and follows the tradition of past Disney tunes like “Circle of Life” and “He Mele No Lilo” by incorporating the local language of its protagonists. “You’re Welcome” is a catchy and humourous song befitting the Maui character as he compliments himself for his exploits. “Shiny” has a much different sound than the other songs, which is distracting at first. However, those who have embraced the hip-hip show tunes of Hamilton will probably find a lot to appreciate in its similar sensibilities. The stand-out number is “How Far I’ll Go”, which serves as Moana’s anthem, and definitely deserves to sit alongside the classic Disney heroine themes. Auli’i Cravalho, the voice of Moana making her acting debut, does a superb job at both voicing the character and performing a song she will find herself singing many times over her career.

 There is a lot to appreciate in Moana, a worthy addition to the ever expanding Disney Animation catalogue. Ron Clements and John Musker’s signature humour and penchant for writing persistent heroines and entertaining side characters is all over Moana. The soundtrack is another success as people of multiple generations will find a whole new set of songs to listen to and Lin-Manuel Miranda immediately proves himself as an excellent addition to the Disney musical family. Looking back at Disney Animation’s earlier film this year, I have a bit of a preference for Zootopia. However, they are such vastly different films in scope, story and ideas, one almost finds it unnecessary comparing the two. That’s a credit to the impressive talent at the studio right now and their willingness to keep pushing the boundaries of the animation medium and the stories it can tell.


Stefan Ellison

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