[NOTE: This is a re-post of our review from the AFI Film Festival; Moana is currently in theaters]
Walt Disney Animation has done it again! There was absolutely no reason to think that Moana would be a subpar production in any respect, but Disney did just earn high praise and big bucks for Zootopia earlier this year and the studio is also coming off an Oscar win for Frozen, so with the bar set so high, it can be tough not to wonder, can they deliver another gem? Well, turns out, the answer is a resounding yes because Moana is yet another magical, exciting and moving adventure packed with catchy songs, lovable characters and truly touching moments.
Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho lends her voice to the title character, a feisty, adventurous teenager who’s felt a connection to the ocean since she was a toddler. But now she’s 16 and as the daughter of Chief Tui, Moana is expected to follow in his footsteps and protect their village, a responsibility that includes keeping their people from traveling beyond the safety of their reef. However, when a sinister darkness begins to strip their land of fresh fruit and fish, Moana comes to learn that the only way she can save her home and her people is with the help of the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) and in order to find him, she’ll have to hit the open water herself.
Moana is downright enchanting from the moment it opens courtesy of the rich, vibrant visualization of the legends and culture of Polynesia. The film kicks off by breaking down the legend of Maui and explaining what happened when he stole the heart of Te Fiti. This tale winds up having the same effect on the viewer as it does on a young Moana – it’s completely captivating, and that makes it the perfect launching pad for Moana’s own journey. But before the movie takes to the high seas, we spend a good deal of time with Moana’s people – a warm, wonderful bunch that contribute to the paradise-like vibe on the island. By pairing that with Maui’s riveting tale and Moana’s infectious charm, you’re hurled into her mission with a significant amount of momentum and a mentality that perfectly mirrors Moana’s – unease about defying her father and the risks involved, but also an overwhelming excitement for the opportunity to explore the unknown, and the unknown in Moana is wonderful.
Good luck pinpointing your favorite character, scene and song from Moana because everything is well executed, mesmerizing and highly entertaining. Moana is a powerful protagonist who struggles to find her purpose, but she still has a strong sense of self and that ensures she stands out amongst Disney’s ever-growing pack of exceptionally strong female characters. She also makes an excellent pair with Maui. There’s tons of fun to be had with their contentious relationship and sassy attitudes, but there’s also a good deal of heart to back it up because it’s abundantly clear that they both need each other. One might think the demigod is key to saving the day, but he’s a surprisingly flawed hero and there’s absolutely no way Maui would make any progress without Moana’s steadfast determination. They complement each other in a way that pushes the narrative forward and also enriches both characters in the process.
Moana and Maui are front and center in the film, but Moana is also packed with fantastic supporting characters, a personal favorite being the brainless rooster Heihei (Alan Tudyk) who’s got a habit of getting himself into trouble in the most ridiculous and amusing ways. Gramma Tala (Rachel House) also makes quite the impression as one of few characters who support Moana’s connection to the sea. Even when Moana does finally leave the village, Gramma Tala’s lessons and advice reverberate, making the character especially memorable and important. The list of standouts continues with the Kakamora, a group of pirate coconuts. (Yes, pirate coconuts.) They’re featured in one of the movie’s most exhilarating sequences that looks like it could have come straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road. We also get an unforgettable voice performance from Jemaine Clement as Tamatoa, a gigantic crab who takes great pride in decorating his shell with everything shiny and has a wonderfully kooky musical number to celebrate it, appropriately called “Shiny.”
Johnson performing “You’re Welcome” will likely become a fan favorite, but there’s really no telling which song you’ll walk out of the theater humming because almost every single musical number in Moana is both meaningful and catchy. The unusual theatrics and tone of “Shiny” make it a particularly fun scene to watch, but tracks like “We Know the Way” beautifully capture the setting, enhancing the tone of the movie while also serving as a great tune that’s well worth listening to beyond the feature film.
The Moana script does tread into some familiar territory, but it’s oozing with so much positivity and energy that it doesn’t take away from the experience in the least. Only time will tell if Moana will go on to have a legacy as powerful as Frozen, but if Disney makes a truckload of money selling Moana toys and leaves you with a hit song stuck in your head á la “Let It Go,” the studio most certainly will have earned it. Moana is the celebration of uniqueness, culture, family and pure joy that we need right now.