Review – Moana

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Disney animation has been in the midst of something of a renaissance lately. Their most recent film takes us to ancient Polynesia and introduces to a girl named Moana.

Inspired by a number of myths and legends, Moana begins its story in an idyllic island village somewhere in the Pacific ocean. The daughter of the chief, our new Disney princess (Auli’i Cravalho). Despite the apparent utopia that is her home, Moana has a longing for the world beyond the horizon – something made abundantly clear through a musical number that is basically the above water version of “Under the Sea.” It turns out her rebellious nature has a purpose though. As trouble comes over the island, someone needs to seek out answers elsewhere, and she takes on the dangerous task in order to save her people.

For the most part, this is a two person show. Moana takes front and center, but shares the spotlight with a rambunctious demigod, Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson. Because I don’t think there’s a single film to date that is worse off for featuring The Rock. Singing and sailing their way across the sea, the two embark on a hero’s quest together despite a rather tumultuous relationship.

The animation is gorgeous, with water that is so stunning I wanted to dive right in. I wish there was more of it, actually. Despite being central to the movie, we don’t get much more than the surface of the ocean other than for a few key scenes. Near the beginning of the film there’s a scene where the water parts, in a near Biblical manner, and the resulting reverse-aquarium is a delight to behold and a marvel of aquatic animation. So sad that it lasts such a short amount of time.

The plot is a fairly straightforward quest. So much so, in fact, that it brought to mind any number of The Legend of Zelda games, if Link were a Polynesian teenager, this is what the next entry in that franchise would look like. When the inevitable video game adaptation comes around, I can already predict a few key puzzles and boss battles. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it did come off as more formulaic than some of the studio’s other recent hits.

More than the plot, what bothered me the most was how on the nose the messages of following your heart et al are. Whereas Frozen and Zootopia cleverly showed rather than told much of what they had to say, Moana practically monologues its message to the point of preaching it. Again, not a terrible thing, but just clunky compared to the alternative, and a mite distracting.

Several of the songs – yes, this a musical – are clever and memorable and make me hope for a resurgence of the genre. Oh, and by the way, stick around until the end of the credits. You’re welcome.

Perhaps in trying to synthesize such a vast trove of different cultures and stories into one inlcusive character and tale, the writers lost their way a bit, afraid to focus to closely on any one things, so ending up with a slightly watered down many-headed thing. On the plus side, there seems to be no big deal made out of Moana’s ethnicity, other than obviously informing the story from the getgo. Where The Princess and the Frog seemed to scream out “Look at me, I’m the first black Disney princess, yay!” this just “is”, which is wonderful, presenting diversity in a more normalized manner.

We’re at the point though, where Disney is so on top of their game that even with a movie that’s clearly going to lose out to Zootopia this year in the mind of most critics, they’ve still got a home run here, just not a grand slam. When it comes to multiple watches, there’s probably more here for the kids than adults, but that’s ok too. Another well done feature from Disney Animation, the new Pixar.

Mrs. Hamster says:

“I liked it. It felt like a more classic Disney movie. For me it was like a cross between Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid.”

Brother Hamster did not screen this film

My rating: Four out of five hats

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Trailer:

Moana sails into 3,875 theaters November 23