You’d think after decades of films, both 2D, 3D, and live-action, that Disney would eventually run out of ideas. Yet, especially this year, Disney proves that they can still make masterpieces that aren’t tied to their classic films. Moana, is definitely among those masterpieces.
Quite simply, Moana is about, well, Moana, the sole daughter of a chief on an island called Motunui. Not surprisingly, Moana wants to break free of her island “prison” and go see what “lies beyond the reef”. However, her father has decreed that no one can go beyond it, and seeks to show Moana why island life is better than the unknowns that tempt her.
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Well, it’s because the directors of the film, Ron Clements and John Musker, made The Little Mermaid, so it’s not surprising that there are many parallels. In fact, the song, “How Far I’ll Go” will draw comparisons to “Part Of Your World”, and for good reasons. However, I do applaud the directors for showing just how different Moana is from Arial. Mainly, in that Moana for a while actually accepts being a future chief. Even showing how good she is at solving problems at such a young age. Whereas Arial only ever wanted to go beyond the waters and onto land.
Also unlike Arial, the real catalyst for the story is that Moana’s island is dying. The food that her tribe relies on is either diseased, or unable to be found. It’s here that we get a glimpse into the larger history of Moana’s world. As her ancestors, and even gods and demigods, are revealed.
I’m a history guy myself, so seeing and hearing “We Know The Way”, the song of her voyager ancestors, really made me smile. Because it tied into the real-world histories of the Hawaiians, Samoans, the Mao’ri, and more who did sail from island to island and make homes. In a way, this really helped make the story special. Because they didn’t need to show anything other than Moana saving her home. But by doing this, they allowed more growth for now only Moana, but her whole tribe by the time the story ended.
Moving on, as Moana, with guidance from her grandmother, sets sail to save her people, she goes to find the demigod Maui. Who long ago stole an item called the “Heart of Te Fiti”. And if the two don’t return it, not only will Moana’s island die, but all others will as well.
While this is definitely a “hero’s journey” kind of tale, the characters are what really sell it. Moana is strong willed, stubborn, yet very kind and compassionate, a great combination for a modern heroine. She often takes charge, and even when she falters, she finds the strength within her to keep going, even when she doesn’t understand why she doesn’t give up. Auli’i Cravalho brings a innocent and true beauty to Moana, and you’ll want to see her succeed from beginning to end.
Then there’s Maui, who’s a nice twist on things. You’d think him being the cause of the problems for Moana and her tribe would make him a bad guy, er, demigod. Or, after you hear all of his “accomplishments”, you’d think he’s actually a fraud. But it’s just the opposite. He’s actually done everything he’s said he’s done. It’s just that he’s desires appreciation, and wants to make the people love him, that he did bigger and bigger things until he stole the Heart, which was a bad move. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson voices Maui, and plays him not unlike his wrestling character. Big, loud, arrogant, yet totally loveable. If you don’t have “Your Welcome” stuck in your head after the movie? Something is wrong with you.
These two are a great team, both in character and in chemistry. Though their in-movie relationship starts of rocky, it becomes a mutual friendship by the end. Especially when it takes a surprising mentor/pupil dynamic about midway through.
At times, I was worried about how easy things were progress, but leave it to the directors to pull a bait-and-switch a few times to show us the true thing we were seeing. This is much appreciated, as it helped build up both Moana and Maui as more in-depth characters. For example, despite Moana wanting to sail the oceans, she herself doesn’t know how to sail like her ancestors. Thus, Maui has to (reluctantly) teach her. On the flip side, Maui doesn’t want to accept responsibility for what he’s done, but with Moana’s help, he grows into not only a better demigod, but a better person.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the absolutely beautiful animation and look of the film. Technology is truly the reason Moana looks and flows so well. Even the smallest things, like Moana being covered in sand and having to brush it off is totally stunning. Then you add the ocean itself, the creatures that live in it, the magic of Maui, and the graphics in the songs, and you get a visually stunning experience. Heck, even Maui’s tattoos, which call back to the true origin of the craft, are something very unique. A particular favorite visual for me is when the ocean does a literal biblical scene that will make anyone who knows the story smile.
Oh, did I mention the ocean? Well, in a fun twist, it’s alive. Not unlike how many tribes believe the ocean is something to be respected and feared, for it is alive in many ways. In this case, it’s more literal, as it helps (repeatedly) Moana, and guides her on her way. Even catching her and putting back on the boat every time she gets thrown off it by Maui.
Finally, there’s a chicken, a very insane chicken, a very insane chicken that even the ocean hates, and one that you won’t be able to stop laughing at.
Moana is a beautiful tale of identity, wanting to save ones home, and wanting to recover ones legacy. There are many twists and turns in this tale. Much comedy to be laughed at. Many songs that will bring your smiles, or in my case tears. And characters that you’ll reference for some time. Moana is an instant classic, go and see it.