Review: Magnificent Moana is a spirited Oceanic adventure
In Disney’s long-standing animated tradition, there has never been a character like Moana, and a story like hers has rarely been told.
Disney’s new animated adventure Moana, directed by the A-team of Ron Clements and John Musker (responsible for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Princess & The Frog), is a unique story that transcends the tradition of Disney princesses by making the film’s title character a bonafide heroine. Additionally, Clements and Musker’s seventh animated feature film collaboration brings attention to the culture of the Pacific Islands, perhaps the first major blockbuster to describe this culturally rich and diverse area.
At the beginning of the film, we meet Moana as a little girl, hearing a folk tale told to her class by Gramma Tala, her grandmother (Rachel House, Whale Rider). Gramma Tala tells Moana and her class about how a mischievous demigod named Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti, a goddess responsible for the well being of the ocean and everything in it. After Maui took Te Fiti’s heart, he squared off against a malevolent volcanic monster. Maui was struck out of of the sky in his clash with this fiery creature, and neither Te Fiti’s heart nor Maui were ever seen again.
As Moana (voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho in her first feature film role) grows older, she finds herself increasingly drawn to discovering what lies beyond the reef of the fictional Polynesian island of Motunui. She yearns to explore the ocean rather than stay confined to her village, and to discover the reason why the ocean life around Motunui and the island itself is slowly withering. However, like Ariel before her, Moana clashes with her father, who is worried about losing her to the many dangers of the sea. He compels her to stay grounded on the island, where she will eventually replace him as village chieftain.
With the help of her grandmother, Moana one night learns that her ancestors were once explorers of the Pacific Ocean. A number of spiritual factors combine that urge the young Polynesian adventurer to set out on a journey to restore Te Fiti’s heart. Along her journey and through brave tests with several sea monsters, Moana is driven by her courage, ingenuity and wit in accomplishing what she set out to do.
Unlike previous Disney animated features, Moana does not create a love interest for its titular character. The focus of the film is centered more on Moana achieving her mission, getting beyond her boundaries and finding who she is meant to be. The film also subverts the story of damsels in distress by empowering Moana as she reaches her goal.
One scene in the film that especially sticks out to me occurs after Moana meets and confronts Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, Central Intelligence, in a stellar debut voice acting role). There are several witty lines when these two characters first meet, and the dialogue in the scene is funny and well-written. After Moana implores Maui to teach her how to sail, Maui refuses and labels her a princess. A persistent Moana challenges Maui’s criticism and presses him to teach her, and he soon agrees. Eventually, Moana proves to Maui and herself that she is more than capable of navigating the ocean on her own.
Another factor that distinguishes Moana from other Disney animated films is the absence of an antagonist or villain. Rather than presenting an opposing force, Moana instead focuses on the resolution of the personal challenges troubling its main characters and the consequences of disrespecting the environment. The end of the film is an unexpected and exceptionally clever way to resolve the multiple conflicts that arise throughout. Moana is stunning for that fact alone.
At the core of Moana are themes of identity, self-development and tradition. The fiilm’s protagonist initially struggles with her decision to stay on the path of tradition or to take a new and more exciting direction. Over the course of her journey to restore Te Fiti’s heart, Moana uses her innate skills, and learns several new ones, to master all the challenges she faces. At the end of her journey, Moana has a better understanding of her culture’s history and helps her village regain its sense of identity as well.
Through beautifully rendered CGI animation, the story of Moana and all the film’s characters are brought to life. The result is breathtaking. The film is strengthened by great writing, solid performances by its two lead voice actors, and colorful music composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, and Oceanic group Te Vaka. Moana more than fits the bill for lighthearted holiday entertainment for viewers of every age group, and is a spirited, sentimental addition to Disney’s catalog of animated films.
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