In general, Disney makes good films. And Moana is another in a line of pretty awesome movies that the company has been releasing recently. I feel like lately Disney has been breaking down its own cliches in an extremely on-the-nose, yet strangely refreshing way. First there was Frozen which essentially tore down its “Disney Princess” and love story formulas. Then there was Zootopia, which flat out said it wasn’t a song-and-dance sort of film and made some poignant commentary on the current state of racism in the United States. And now there is Moana which is making a good example of using culture appropriately, without the cultural appropriation.
Moana is about the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe (Auli’i Cravahlo), who must find the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and sail across the sea to return the “Heart” of the goddess Te Fiti in hopes of saving her people. It does a great job – both in song and in story – at immersing the audience into a different culture, yet celebrating the differences between the culture of the characters, and the supposed culture of the audience. For a better and more in-depth look at how the studio does this through the use of language and music, I’d highly recommend looking at this video. The music overall is fun and rather catchy. In a weird way, my favorite song was the one sung by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He’s not a great singer or anything, but the amount of fun that he seems to be having with his character and the way Maui is animated adds to the enjoyment of the song. Similarly, I liked the song by minor antagonist, Tamatoa, voiced by Jermaine Clement, who again, doesn’t have the best voice, but is an immaculate performer.
The animation was beautifully done, with bright and vibrant colors to fit the tropical setting. The camera angles and character movements were fairly dynamic, and though a good chunk of the film took place on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, the scenes never felt stale. Character designs were changed up a bit this time (I always felt that Tangled and Frozen characters suffered from same-face-syndrome), and the facial expressions on Maui were varied and delightful.
After thinking back on previous Disney animated films, I was surprised the find that this movie is Disney’s only true “chosen one” story arc. The “diamond in the rough” plot device from Aladdin comes close, but that movie doesn’t play out like your classic “chosen one” story like Moana does. Furthermore, I noticed that some parts of the movie felt very Star Wars mixed with Lord of the Rings-ish. I got some serious Yoda-vibes from Moana’s grandmother.
And the way they had to protect and carry the Heart of Te Fiti to the other side of the sea felt similar to the escort mission of Frodo and The Ring. Jeez, no wonder I liked this film.
Story and character development is where the film lost me a little. Having yet another protagonist with a dream of “seeing more” has essentially been done to death at this point, but it at least added the secondary goal of Moana wanting to protect her village. Moana and Maui played off of each other well, and it was nice to see a male and female Disney character interact without there being any romantic hints at all. But I wish there was more time with these two characters together. Furthermore, I kind of wanted a larger emotional tug with the film’s tenser moments. The reveal of Maui’s backstory and his doubts in his abilities felt like they were resolved a bit too quickly. Same goes for the relationship between Moana and her father. The emotional parts felt kind of cobbled together and I wish they dwelt on them longer. I suppose it’s not bad that the worst thing I can say about a movie is that I wanted more of it, but still, I seriously wouldn’t have minded if the film ran a bit longer if it was able to add in some deeper character development.
Overall, Moana was a decently cool movie and fits well with Frozen and Zootopia as a trifecta of Disney subverting itself. Not as good as the other two, but certainly worthy of its modern Disney peers. I’d give it a watch if you like vibrant animation, enjoyable music, and if you want to see the infamous studio try to make up for some past failures with using other cultures and peoples.
And that’s my article. I bet it was awesome at helping you decide whether you wanted to watch this movie or not. What can I say?