MOANA Review

I've been watching a lot of The Little Mermaid lately thanks to my two year-old daughter and like Ariel, Moana faces a father who is something of a control freak and who stands in the way of her and what she feels is her destiny. The difference in the plights of Ariel and Moana come very quickly though as rather than a forbidden romance, Moana simply wants to explore the waters of the sea out past the reef that surrounds her people's island. So, in short, they actually long for the exact opposite of one another, but you get the point. This analogy of sorts works throughout Moana as the latest from Disney Animation plays very much to the strengths and structures of its predecessors while making just enough tweaks to appropriate it for the current cultural landscape. Meaning directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who both not-so-surprisingly wrote and directed not only The Little Mermaid, but Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog among others, know what they're doing, but more are well-aware of the anatomy of a Disney movie and how best to perform such a feat as creating something that is both fun yet familiar. Creating a place audiences can go to find a refreshing bit of nostalgia in the Disney animated musicals of old while witnessing the marvels of today's animation as their children soak it all in for the first time the moral of Moana is that there will always be new generations of audiences who need to be coaxed or have a gateway to those aforementioned Disney hits of the nineties. Moana is very much an amalgamation of all that has come before it while encapsulating all that Disney's brand of animation can be moving forward. Taking cues from those that have come before, acknowledging them in humorous ways, and then going on to execute them in exceptional ways Moana is something of a treasure that never slows down (save for the obligatory bit of self-doubt that must be overcome in the third act) and continues to surprise by not necessarily going in any unexpected directions, but more by being as creative as possible in the approach it takes to those directions. It is difficult to describe exactly how a movie that brings so much joy is capable of doing just that, but I was unable to drop the smile and/or awestruck expression from my face for the entire runtime. For this and for its keen sense of when to borrow and when to innovate Moana is easily my favorite animated film of 2016.

Gramma Tala (Rachel House) councils her granddaughter, Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), on following her heart versus her father's instructions.
© 2016 - Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
It's always enjoyable to track musicals by the song titles listed on their respective soundtracks and Moana not only has a soundtrack full of identifiers for the journey our heroes go on, but several that prove to be show-stoppers in the same regard of it being easy to see/hear many of these catching on and forming cornerstones of many a childhood's that will be sung fondly in fifteen years. Much like 2013's Frozen, Moana opens with a melody inspired by the indigenous culture from which the film will draw its characters. Setting the tone, Moana's grandmother and village crazy lady Gramma Tala (Rachel House) gives the local children a scare by relaying the myth of the demi-god Maui. Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess credited with creating all of the surrounding islands and the life that inhabits them. In stealing the small pounamu stone known as Te Fiti's heart Maui awoke a lava monster known as Te Ka with whom he had to do battle in order to deliver the heart to the humans he promised it to. In this battle, Maui lost not only Te Fiti's heart, but his magical fishhook that was gifted to him by the gods and was thus banished to an island far from any type of civilization where he was doomed to remain forever. Gramma Tala's story concludes by telling us that because Maui stole Te Fiti's heart all the islands she created would become cursed including that of Gramma Tala and Moana's home. In a village that survives purely off the land and who never venture out beyond the reef Moana (newcomer Auli'i Cravalho) has always felt something of a calling to the sea. As Moana grows older and her father, the chief, Tui (Temuera Morrison) becomes more and more adamant about his daughter following in his footsteps and providing an example by which to lead their people he essentially means she can do anything but sail out past the reef. Once thought only to be a myth it begins to feel like the curse of Te Fiti is real when the crops on the island begin to die and the fisherman are no longer able to catch any fish within the reef. Feeling torn between doing what her father desires for her and what he has told her to do, Moana sets off to prove herself to be a master navigator and seafarer recruiting the one and only Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) to assist her on her journey across the open ocean to restore the heart of Te Fiti.

This journey is very much aided by the presence of original songs from the likes of Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, with the films score being written by Mancina. As stated in the previous paragraph, the soundtrack can serve as something of a guide through our experience with these characters and in the vein of something like Mermaid, Aladdin, or The Lion King the quality of how well the emotional highs and lows come through in these songs is key to the full arc of our characters being conveyed in effective fashion. The big opening number that comes through mostly by way of Chief Tui titled, "Where You Are," gives the sense of restriction our titular heroine feels while also allowing Clements and Musker a way to transition from the toddler Moana we see in the preface to the full grown chief-in-training brought to vigorous life by the animators and Cravalho's endearing and charming performance. It's not ten minutes after "Where You Are," sets this tone that made me sit up and acknowledge that they (meaning Disney) were really going for it this time. That they were going for that full-on epic via song the same way so many of those aforementioned nineties hits solidified their legacies. That Moana more or less solidifies this win less than half an hour in when Cravalho belts out a track titled, "How Far I'll Go" is both triumphant and concerning. Still, "How Far I'll Go," is immediately recognizable as an instant Disney smash that sports a melody and tone that resonates the spirit of Moana's plight. In the moments that Moana is belting out this tune it's difficult to imagine how the film might be able to live up to such a moment as the film still has over an hour on its running time and the momentum is already so high that it seems almost impossible to keep that pace up. That is, until the screenplay that is credited solely to Jared Bush (though Taika Waititi wrote the initial screenplay), continues to provide interesting elements that are only made more so by the creativity of the team bringing the tale to life. Further layers of the islands past are revealed to Moana via Gramma Tala leading into what will undoubtedly live on as the theme for the film in, "We Know the Way," as sung by Miranda and Foa'i and in which the whole history of Moana's island and her people is captured. Furthermore, we get an absolute blast of a piece reminiscent of something like, "I Just Can't Wait to be King," or "Under the Sea" in our introduction to Maui with a song titled "Your Welcome," with the only element seeming to be absent is that of the devious number by the films antagonist. In place of this we get a genuinely funny and self-aware piece of sing-song humor from a giant villainous coconut crab named Tamatoa voiced by Jemaine Clement. Fair trade.

Demi-god Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) finds Moana's ambition more than a little grating at first.
© 2016 - Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
With all of that said, from the way in which Moana acknowledges, deconstructs, and re-imagines the tropes of its illustrious genre to the genuinely jaw-dropping visuals it provides (seriously, the location re-creation here is astounding) to the rousing and catchy soundtrack there is seemingly no obstacle Moana doesn't overcome on its way to becoming another in a line of Disney animated classics. It is only that we add to this the most perfect of pairings between casting and character that Moana further excels the list of boxes that need to be checked in order to be aligned with the greatest of the mouse house's achievements. I am, of course, referring to that of Johnson as Maui. Given his introduction through, "Your Welcome," could be considered a highlight in a film where the "high points" could easily be debated it is made immediately clear that both Johnson as a performer and Clements, Musker, and their team of animators are taking advantage of Johnson's public persona that has him pegged as the immensely charming if not slightly self-obsessed center of attention who knows as much about himself and flaunts it. Throughout Moana, Johnson's performance as Maui is legitimately and consistently hilarious. In fact, the whole film has a great comic sense about itself with Moana's animal sidekick being that of a mangled-looking chicken named hei hei whose bit never grows as old as it seems it might. The rapport that initially sees Moana and Maui frustrated with one another naturally progresses to a camaraderie of natural language between the two characters. A short hand almost that lends the relationship a depth that doesn't scream out to be recognized or lauded, but more a simple and subtle touch that comes through in an effortless fashion. What eventually becomes evident about Moana though is that it doesn't have to try in order to attain the viewer's interest. I walked in knowing little about the premise of the film and became immediately invested in the character of Moana without necessarily caring about the overall objective. With beautiful visuals, the amount of culture conveyed through every song, real inventiveness (see the segment where our heroes encounter little pygmy pirates known as Kakamora for concrete proof), and a fresh tone that blesses every frame it's hard to take your eyes or ears away from Moana, but that's okay because why would you want to?