Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Written by: Jared Bush
Directed by: Ron Clements; John Musker; Don Hall; Chris Williams
Moana might just be Frozen‘s spiritual, tropical sequel. But to be honest, I’m only just guessing that — I never saw Frozen. Couldn’t stand the hype. When hype for a film made by a film company I generally do not care for reaches Frozen levels, I tend to break out in hives. So I, you know, let it go.
I was similarly skeptical of Moana but eventually was won over by the casting of The Rock as a demigod named Maui, a boastful but affable caricature of the man himself who plays a major role in Moana (newcomer Auli’i Carvalho)’s voyage. Turns out, Carvalho and Dwayne Johnson go together like peanut butter and jelly. These two are wonderful together and they make a thoroughly clichéd adventure more palatable. (Plus Maui sports tattoos that come to life and with which he frequently interacts. Such was the novelty of the concept I was left wondering what Mike Tyson’s face tattoo would say or do.)
Moana is a film about empowerment and finding your higher calling in life — not exactly a first for Disney. But their latest finds separation by not only introducing a confident young woman but through an exploration of a culture that is woefully underrepresented in modern cinema. The Mouse House has often gotten by with formulaic storytelling dressed up in different outfits, and in Moana we don the cloth of a deeply spiritual Polynesian tribe. Our heroine, in a time-honored tradition, must confront her own limitations by putting herself through a series of physical and often emotional tests that will determine not only her future but that of her own people, a once-proud band of intrepid voyagers who have come to settle on the island of Monutui.
Moana, heiress to and the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) and Sina (Nicole Scherzinger), has a great fondness for the ocean. She’s captivated by its beauty and its infiniteness. Constantly drawn to the water’s edge as a child, she one day discovers a gem stone in the shallows, which happens to be the heart of an island goddess named Te Fiti. The stone was stolen by the demigod Maui in his attempt to gift humanity with the power of life and in a resulting fight it was lost to the depths. Now the ocean has seemingly chosen Moana as the one to restore it and to rid the Pacific islands of the darkness that has slowly been spreading ever since, a darkness that eventually hits Monutui.
When vegetation on the island starts dying off and fish become scarce, Moana suggests venturing beyond the reefs to search for what they need. Her father angrily rebuffs her, reminding her that her place in society is not on the ocean, but rather on land to take care of her people. With the encouragement of her eccentric grandmother Tala (Rachel House) who shows her a secret cave in which a fleet of boats have been permanently stored away — proof positive of her people’s history — Moana sets out on the open water, along with a mentally defective rooster named Heihei, to find Maui and to restore Te Fiti’s heart. When she finally encounters the demigod she starts to gain an understanding of what she has gotten herself into.
You see, Maui has lost his hook. And no that’s not a euphemism for him going insane. Although he is a bit kooky. Wouldn’t you be, though, if you had been stranded on a desert isle for an unspecified amount of time? Look what happened to Tom Hanks. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment; it has turned a pro wrestler into a legitimate American Idol contestant. That’s right: The Rock can sing. And he can sing well. His moment comes in the form of ‘You’re Welcome,’ an upbeat little diddy that, resist as you might, will get your toes tapping. In it, he regales us with tales of badassery and tattooery. He’s “a hero of men.” But he’s lost his hook, the thing that gives him power to physically transform, to the monsters dwelling in the black depths of the Pacific.
Thus we get yet another one of those “You scratch my back, I scratch yours” subplots that
Disney Animation animated films are so fond of, but rather than pad the run time the journey to the briny bottom gives us more insight into the mystical qualities of this universe. Down there we also get to meet Jemaine Clement‘s vainglorious crab Tamatoa. He gets a musical number of his own, also fun. Maybe now is a good time to point out how neither of these songs quite measure up to that of Carvalho’s ‘How Far I’ll Go.’ In fact ‘Shiny’ feels tedious when compared. Carvalho is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. Her singing only serves to reinforce her character’s mental tenacity. It’s actually pretty inspiring. And every bit as empowering.
Moana is 100% devoted to character. The adventure itself not only builds it, but the film centers around a strong, likable young female. Not a damsel in distress. Not a drama queen. A real human being with hopes and aspirations, quirks and flaws. Apparently there were efforts made by the filmmakers to reduce the role gender would play in the narrative. A first draft, written by Taika Waititi, identified Moana as the only daughter in a family of five or six brothers, a detail that was later changed to her being an only child so greater emphasis could be placed on her journey of self-discovery. Despite those efforts Moana has a distinctly feminist lean. Many female characters play a crucial role in the film, be they the village crazy, a giant Monterey or an angry deity. Best of all, Moana’s success or failure isn’t measured based on her ability to attract a love interest. There’s nary a romantic subplot at all, for that matter. That feels more refreshing even than a splash in the ocean on a hot sunny day.
Recommendation: Fun, lively, visually spectacular, and boasting some great (original) music, Moana is a great one for the whole family. Even when I don’t typically go for Disney Animated Studios stuff, I had a blast with this one. I’ll thank Dwayne Johnson and a fun supporting cast for that. The film also serves as an impressive calling card for the Hawaiian newcomer. Highly recommended.
Running Time: 103 mins.
Quoted: “If I was called Sebastian and had a Jamaican accent, you’d help me.”
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