Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker
Co-directed by Don Hall & Chris Williams
Written by Jared Bush
Any year when we can get two Disney’s Animated films is a blessing, especially when Disney has been on such a hot streak recently. They have had their ebbs and flows through their 80+ year history, but Zootopia from earlier this year was a hit, along with Big Hero 6, Frozen, and Wreck-It-Ralph before it. And for as much as I liked Zootopia for its beautiful animation, likable characters, and relevant story, I think I like Moana that much more for a number of different reasons. If you imagine everything good about Disney in it’s past, you’ll get Moana. Yes, this also may mean that we’ve seen this movie before, that the themes, characters, and even settings are all familiar, but it also means that it’s one heck of a movie that embraces everything good about Disney and manages to craft a film that is at once familiar while also wildly entertaining.
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is not a princess, if you ask her. Rather, she is the chief’s daughter (same difference if you ask me). Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) has lead his people on their island paradise just as his father, grandfather, etc. before him. They live off the land and fish the seas. But no one must go beyond the reef to the dangerous, open ocean. Moana is curious, however, and even encouraged by her grandmother (Rachel House), who teaches Moana of her people’s true heritage. So when the crops begin to wilt, and the fish cannot be found, Moana, chosen by the ocean to return the heart of Te Fiti, the goddess of the land, sets out on the open ocean to save her people. Without her heart, Te Fiti’s abundance has dwindled and the darkness has begun to stretch all the way to Moana’s home island of Motunui. Along the the way, Moana meets the mythical demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson), an arrogant shape-shifter who stole the heart in hopes of controlling life.
The focus on Polynesian culture in this film, which included directors Ron Clements and John Musker including the Oceanic Story Trust in order to assure accuracy and cultural sensitivity, is a joyous celebration. While the Disney aspect of the film may remind me of such films as Pocahontas, or Lilo & Stitch, the cultural celebration reminds me more of famed documentary Kon-Tiki, and how the Polynesian people are such a brave and proud seafaring people. The filmmaker really did a great job with this aspect of the film, which bled into the overall tone of the film being one of happy celebration for who you are, both as individuals and as a greater community. The computer animation, a first for longtime Disney directors Clements and Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), is beautiful, with light and breezy colors complementing the oceanic scenery so well. The animation of the water, as strange as that sounds, is perhaps the greatest achievement in the animation.
Adding to the bubbly affair is the voice cast, lead by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as Moana and of course the funny and extremely charismatic Dwayne Johnson as Maui. Their interactions and relationship is central to the development of Moana as a character. There are jokes aplenty whenever the two are on screen. Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) is also evident throughout with his infectious arrangements in the numerous songs found throughout. A musical in the truest sense, Moana‘s heart and soul is found in its music. Miranda collaborated with composers Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i to pen soaring songs of adventure and cultural pride. While no single song will likely rival “Let It Go” from Frozen, the soundtrack overall is the strongest from a Disney film in many years, with multiple songs that are catchy enough to be sung by the whole family for weeks on end.
There is a segment in the middle, as Moana and Maui are travelling the seas to Te Fiti, when the pace slows down a little bit and loses some steam, but overall the film flies by with laugh after laugh, song after song, exciting encounter after exciting encounter. Top to bottom, Moana is a film to rival the past successes of Disney, and perhaps even to surpass them in some respects. It is definitely a film that celebrates the individual passion to follow your heart, be yourself, and embrace it. It is also a film that celebrates family, community, and the giving of oneself for the greater whole. These messages are not new to Disney’s catalog, but Moana does them so well as to be counted among one of the truly memorable entries in their storied history as the leaders of animation feature films.
*** 1/2 – Great
Written & Directed by Leo Matsuda
Inner Workings is the short film Disney has paired with Moana to be shown prior to the feature. Disney has been doing this for the last few years, and I am so excited they are continuing to offer a short film in front of their feature releases. In past years, some of the films have been truly wonderful. Inner Workings tells the story of a guy who gets up every day, goes to work, comes home and goes to bed to do the same thing all over again. In true Inside Out fashion, we get to see how his decisions are made inside his body. The Brain is the main character, but we also get a pretty big part from the Heart, and the Lungs make an appearance too. It is a daily struggle, the man fighting against his body to do the right thing to live a longer life, to not encounter some kind of pratfall which will surely lead to his untimely death.
The pairing is a good one given the messages of each film, to follow your heart and live a happy, meaningful life, even if that ultimately means you have to take some risks. Life is a risk, it’s true, but living the drab, boring, glum life the main character is here, to make it to old age only to realize he never truly lived is not risky, it’s not fulfilling. Matsuda’s film is cute, it has some nice ideas and visuals, but ultimately it just doesn’t pop off the screen the same way past short films from Disney have. It feels too similar to Inside Out, and Moana communicates the message of individuality far better than Inner Workings does. For what it is, a seven minute setup to Moana, it’s fine. It won’t waste anyone’s time, and it won’t be something many people remember from their experience to the theater.
**1/2 – Average