Film Review: Moana

by Chad Liffmann on November 23, 2016

Moana is beautiful, adventurous, and musically gifted.

Animated Moana gives a miraculous multi-dimensional performance.

Animated Moana gives a miraculous multi-dimensional performance.

Yesterday I watched Moana. Today I listened to the soundtrack about eleven times through. Yesterday I questioned the benefit of seeing films in 3D. Today I feel that a film can truly benefit from non-gimmicky 3D. Yesterday I wondered when there’d be a new Disney song, besides “Let It Go”, that I’d welcome getting stuck in my head. Today I’ve had three Moana songs stuck in my head and love’em all. Do you catch my drift? Disney has delivered a beautifully animated film that holds true to the traditional spirit of Disney animated feature canon while adding new depths to characters and story structure. Moana is a cinematic gift — a film that is accessible and enjoyable to all audiences, re-watchable, boasts a stellar soundtrack, sets a new standard for animated environments (though I feel like I say that every six months), and has one of the most admirable female heroes ever put on screen. Yup, I mean it, too.

Moana begins with a narrated prologue introducing us to an ancient Polynesian fable of a demigod, Maui, who steals a jewel called ‘the heart of Te Fiti’ from an earth deity, creating a shockwave of encroaching darkness around the world. We then meet Moana (voice of newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of a tribal chief living on a fictional island in Polynesia. Moana is figuring out where her passion lies, torn between the responsibility of joining her lineage of ancestral leaders and voyaging on the open sea. I’ll let you go see what happens next! But, just to give you a sense, it involves Moana locating Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), battling off multiple ancient creatures, and returning the heart of Te Fiti to its natural resting place. Sorry, I feel you should at least have some sense of the story.

Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho provides a strong vocal performance as Moana. It’s a breath of fresh air to have the main cast member actually be the same age and ethnicity as her/his character. It seems to make a difference here, as it lends accuracy and a sense of belonging to the film’s setting. The character of Moana is intelligently written, having many dimensions to her actions and decision-making. She is strong and vulnerable, courageous and timid, hard-nosed and sentimental, but most importantly, independent. Calling a female Disney character ‘independent’ is usually misleading, but here it’s more accurate. Moana has no romantic interest. Not even a hint of one. And believe me, the film is better for it. Moana acts on her own accord…for the most part. She weighs the possible outcomes of situations and considers the ramifications of her actions, and ultimately chooses the path that best leads her in the direction of finding out who she is. In today’s society, there’s no better message to send young children, especially young girls, than to follow the path that calls to them — to take action and tie-in what’s most important to that path, not the other way around.

Moana’s music was co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton: An American Musical) with Opetaia Foa’i (of the musical group Te Vaka) and long-time film composer Mark Mancina. The songs are inspiring and catchy, ranging from self-empowering ballads to comical pop numbers. A few, in particular, will stick with you for days. Moana was co-directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, whose combined Disney credits read like a greatest hits album — The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Princess and the Frog and more. Take note of Aladdin, though, since it’s very easy to draw comparisons between the lovable, shape-shifting, fast-talking demigod Maui in Moana and the blue, shape-shifting, fast-talking Genie in Aladdin. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is no Robin Williams (RIP), but he still nails the jokes, enthusiasm, and emotional beats with ease.

Finally, I recommend that you see Moana in 3D! The oceans, landscapes, and monster designs are astounding and even more jaw dropping with the added depth of 3D. This year has featured some of the finest animated work of the past few years, with Kubo and the Two Strings and Moana leading the pack, and Finding Dory close in tow. So in case you’re keeping track: Strong vocal performances, check. Beautiful animation that properly utilizes 3D, check. Fun and inspiring musical numbers, check. Powerful female lead, check. You really couldn’t ask for more from Disney right now.


Moana opens in theaters Wednesday, November 23rd.


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