Moana 👏 Movie Review

Written by Thelonia

Disney's new animated movie Moana takes on Pacific Island origin stories in an epic tale of self-discovery and exploration that encompasses a demi-god, a debilitatingly brain-dead chicken, a lava demon, glowing green stone of MacGuffin-ness, and a teenage girl who just wants to achieve her dreams and sings her feelings while staying true to herself.

While Moana struggles with some problems that have plagued Disney movies of its ilk in the past, it still stands strong among the Disney animated fare of all time.

The movie begins with a summation of the origin story of the Pacific Islands (created by the Goddess Te Fiti). Suddenly we find ourselves in the world of Ancient Polynesia, where an adorable tot (a young titular Moana) is being narrated this origin story by her grandmother. Hijinks ensue, and Moana finds herself by the sea, which starts to talk to her (sort of).

I literally teared up at this part of the movie? I'm a mess.

Moana, who through a musical montage, grows to be of prime Disney Princess age (and is now voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, a 16 year old, who makes me deeply ashamed for what I was doing at 16), and armed with an array of songs that will burrow their way into your head and haunt your dreams.

Girl Teenhood is filled with slightly less singing-with-the-wind-in-my-hair than the movies may lead you to believe.

After discovering that a darkness (quite literally) is taking over her island, driving the fish away and rotting the fruit, as well as learning about her people's sea-faring past (on orders of their Chief, Moana's father, no one goes past the reef), she decides to set of to right the wrong that caused this blight: the theft of the heart of the Goddess Te Fiti by the demigod Maui.

Through a series of ocean-related happenstances, Moana finds Maui, voiced by Rock Johnson, whose brash presence drives a lot of the comedy in the film. Together they journey to restore the heart of Te Fiti, fighting Mad Max-ish Coconut Gremlins (the Kakamora of the Solomon Islands), a crab god (Tamatoa, voiced by Flight of the Concord's Jemaine Clement), who sings a David-Bowie-ish villain song about being Shiny, and a lava God-Demon that Moana and Maui fight in a very Princess Mononoke-ish climactic scene.

I was going to make a joke but honestly this part was just so cool, I love that Lava monster.

The comparisons to Frozen are inevitable, it being both the last Disney 'Princess' Movie, and an overblown mess (which might give a hint as to how I feel about it), but while I do think it is overall a more solid and structured movie, the movies I would compare it to are Disney's "oh yeah I forgot about that one" Hercules and Dreamwork's Road to El Dorado (which I will love until I die). The structure and religious stories are similar to Hercules (and is perhaps aided by the fact that the Pacific Island stories were not as well known and horrifically jarring as the Greek stories were.

But even on a basic story-telling level, Moana has better structure and characters than Hercules. And regardless of historical inaccuracy of Greco-Roman religious mythology, there is more at stake (and more people still alive who believe these stories) in Moana's case.

And while it basically eclipses Pocahontas on every sensitive to other cultures level (although to be fair, pretty much everything does), there are still criticisms on Moana's handling of Pacific Island Cultures. I have heard mixed feedback, and as a crushingly white person who has never even been to Hawaii, I don't have enough knowledge to toss my opinion in, but for those who are curious, the opinions are: while some are happy that Pacific Island stories are being told at all to a wider audience, some are unhappy with the fact that the movie seems to mix different cultures together as if they were a monolith, as well as unhappy with the representation of Maui, an important cultural figure.

Personally, I do find it a bit morally dubious that Disney continues to make money off someone's religion, but on the other hand, I do find this story extremely compelling, and hope that this does more to help Pacific Islanders than harm them.

We must avoid repeating this mistake ever again, Disney. Ever.

The music, while very standard-ly Disney (and very Broadway - thanks Lin Manuel Miranda), does incorporate tunes by Opetaia Foa’i, a Samoan singer-songwriter and other members of his group Te Vaka. Those songs, as well as parts of the arc song "We Know the Way" incorporates Tokelauan, which is an example of Disney trying to avoid mistakes they've made in the past in terms of approaching non-European cultures and narratives. As is, I find the soundtrack lovely and think it has a good mix of genres and styles (though it might be a bit heavy on the Ballad side, but I'm okay with that). That said, I was weirded out during the credits, when a pop remix of the "I Want" song, "How Far I'll Go" started playing, followed by a smooth R&B version of the Rock's song "You're Welcome."

Is it the return of the 90s Pop Cover? Oh, please God no.

On an animation level, while the landscapes are beautiful and 3D animation has moved leaps in certain areas recently (mostly in the hair and water), there are a few potholes that Disney 3D animation keeps just driving headfirst into. The main one is consistently plastic looking people, and while the proportions are much more varied and interesting than in the past (looking at you again, Frozen), the skin on all the characters still manages to be disturbingly even in tone.

We all wish we had skin that un-pimply as 16 year olds.

While it's not trying to be the next Princess Mononoke, Moana manages to hit some of the same notes, while still being more child-friendly (not hard). But in doing so, and rushing the story at bits (particularly in the third act break-up that just sort of happens so we can have a low point to bounce back from), Moana doesn't allow itself to sit with choices too long, and the implications of certain actions are not as keenly felt as if they had just padded the running time a little bit more. But as it's already pushing two hours, that might just be too much for the audience Disney has most of its success with.

The biggest laugh in my theater was at a pee joke. I weep for the sophistication of 6 year olds.

Overall, watching the movie is the sort of bittersweet of enjoying a restaurant and then realizing it's only there because the neighborhood got gentrified to hell. But then again, it's Disney. It's what they do. And hey, it's a good time while you're there.

 Moana is in theaters now.


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