- Movie Rating -

Moana (2016)

| December 25, 2016

Disney’s Moana finally crosses my path almost a month after its national debut, right here on Christmas Day – a little mele kalikimaka from America’s unofficial dream factory.

My first observation: It’s Disney, it’s very very Disney, from top to bottom.  This movie couldn’t be Disney if you showed it in the theme park in the middle of The Magic Kingdom.  All the elements are here.  You’ve got a spunky princess. You’ve got an ancient legend.  You’ve got a disapproving parent.  You got the goofball comedy relief.  You have a star vehicle for the voice talent.  And you’ve got songs, lots and lots of songs.  All of this is mixed together into a fun juice box for the kids that I am sorry to report is not one of the Disney’s highlights.

After the shock and awe of Zootopia last spring and the surprisingly moving Finding Dory this past summer, Moana coasts along very familiar territory.  Here is a movie of music and color and fun and adventure that is no-doubt entertaining without really breaking any new ground.  Let’s put it this way, you’ll like it while you’re watching it but it will slip from your mind rather quickly when it is over.

Moana’s best asset is that, for once, a film can’t be blamed as being the product of whitewashing.  Here is a movie with a wonderful cast of Māori, Hawaiian and Samoan voice actors who are allowed to tell a tale about this part of the world without the prism of white actors getting in the way.  That sounds a bit crude, I know, but when you realize how often it happens, this comes is kind of a breath of fresh air.  Even though the movie drags in the originality department, there’s at least the sense that this is a cultural piece told by people that should rightfully be telling it.

The story is a mythology that takes place thousands of years ago despite several modern references that admittedly break the spell.  Auli’i Cravalho is the voice of Moana, daughter of a South Pacific chief (voiced by Temuera Morrison) who rules over an idyllic island but forbids anyone from sailing beyond the reef (he suffered a tragedy – yet another Disney mainstay).  True to Disney form, Moana sings about her desire to sail beyond the reef and see what’s out there in a song that, sadly, I can’t remember – not a good sign.  During her training to be her father’s successor, the island is struck by a mysterious curse – the cocoanuts rot, the fish have stop biting and the island population is becoming nervous.  Despite her father’s warnings about going beyond the reef, Moana’s feisty but wise old granny urges her to reclaim the island’s rich heritage of sailing and wayfaring so that she can reclaim the island’s glory and break the curse.

What she is searching for is kind of fascinating.  She must locate a powerful demigod named Maui (voiced with gusto by Dwayne Johnson) so that he can return a magic stone to a powerful sea goddess named Te Fiti so that the curse will be lifted.  There are many dangers along this mission but the biggest stumbling block is Maui’s ego.  He’s a self-promoting, self-loving braggart who can shape-shift just by holding aloft his magic fish hook.  He even has a series of magical movable tattoos that act as his conscience.  Moana’s mission is to get Maui to return a heart stone to the goddess Te Fiti to cure her island of the curse.  The problem: Maui doesn’t want to.

Moana and Maui take off across the high seas struggling over the nature of their mission while battling various curious foes including a band of pirate cocoanuts, a giant crab who has stolen Maui’s hook and finally Ti Fiti herself who, in the absence of the purloined stone, has become a hideous lava monster.

The great achievements of Moana are the visuals.  Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the men behind grand productions like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Princess and the Frog, dip their toes for the first time into computer animation.  What they have created is a gorgeous spectacle, one that is a feast for the eyes.  The animation is kind of breathtaking with its lush landscapes of the tropical islands and its weird and exotic creatures, up to and including Moana’s addle-brained pet chicken Heihei.  They also manage command of water, not an easy feat in animation.  Just as they did in The Little Mermaid, they manage to make the water into a living place, a living presence that respects Moana and her journey.  The way in which the water rises and acknowledges her will remind many of the water effects in James Cameron’s The Abyss.  It’s quite an extraordinary effect.

But the best effect here is Maui.  Voiced by Dwayne Johnson, whom Disney must have been just itching to animate.  They are having fun here, issuing all the trademarks right up to this famous cocked eyebrow.  Johnson is clearly having a ball with this role, the character of a self-loving swaggering egotist who can pull islands from the sea with the tug of his mighty hook.  He realizes that he’s done mankind a solid by providing them with everything they need to be happy and he expresses it in a fun little showstopper called “You’re Welcome” a song that owes more than a little to “Friend Like Me.”  It’s not as good but it makes you smile.

So, why am I not more engaged with this movie?  Well, as I say, it’s the story.  I feel like I’ve been here before.  Despite the fact that the movie is taking me to a new location and introducing me to a culture that I, admittedly, am not familiar with, I feel that the Disney formula is so firmly in place here that many of the movie’s destinations feel fairly inevitable.  The aforementioned Disney familiars are here: the spunky princess, the ancient legend, the disapproving parent, the comedy relief, the star vehicle, the songs; it’s all here and it’s all in place but while the movie has something new to show me, I feel that I’m being denied a new story to be told.  Yet, there are pleasures here.  Its nice to see a Disney princess with spunk and drive and a determination to find her own way, that’s a nice message.  It’s a familiar message, but it’s a nice one all the same.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2016) View IMDB Filed in: Animated