“Moana” (2016): Disney Sails Us Away

Disney’s modern resurgence in quality has been quite astounding. After major hits like Frozen and Zootopia, Disney could just be coasting on those coat tails with its animation department. Yet, with Moana, we see something completely out of left field for the studio: a gorgeous celebration of Pacific Islander culture that’s not too westernized. There’s a bit of a traditional “hero’s journey” narrative to be found, but the cultural context and subversions of Disney’s typical princess narratives are honestly magical to see transpire here. It’s a story that taps into mythology without succumbing to cliche and packs the right emotional punch, grounding the action and spectacle into a story of embracing one’s core heart.

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Moana tries to find her place in the ocean. Copyright Walt Disney Animation

The titular Moana (voiced by the highly energetic newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) points to her difference from the traditional princess mold quite directly from the start. She loves her island, but can’t embrace the idea of letting it rot away due to her father’s strict rules of not leaving. She wants to actually serve as a powerful leader to the people she’s grown up with (unlike most of these Disney Princesses who shirk their royal responsibilities) and doesn’t want blind ignorance to lead to their destruction. She tows the line perfectly between unsure youth and brash leader waiting to sail to find the answer to her people’s troubles.

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The influence from her grandmother Tala (Rachel House) and father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) pulls her in believable conflicting directions as she ponders whether or not to leave. Should she embrace her people directly or embrace the culture of her people to find a solution to their woes? It gives Moana more reason to leave her flock than just finding “more” in the traditional more selfish Disney sense. There’s no love interest or vague song of explroing the world. Instead, there are stakes and dangers that she faces which require direct action. Action that’s not always pretty. Her initial attempt on a boat is squashed quite quickly, but Moana rises to the occasion with determined purpose in her heart. All of this is wonderfully depicted thanks to the lush colors and gorgeous CG animation.

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Two of the directors John Musker and Ron Clements are well known for their work during the Disney Renaissance with the lush 2D animation of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Some of that personality is seamlessly brought over here with the character animation, but the dynamics of the elaborate environments and scope of these threats Moana has to face make a brilliant case for modern CG animation. Particularly any of the moments of scale where Moana has to encounter large than life beings. There’s a real sense of space as these characters move around these incredibly well detailed environments, making the danger of any sense as virbant as the diverse color pallete. Even something as simple as the way the chicken character Heihei (voiced by a somehow unrecognizable Alan Tudyk doing chicken buck sounds) bumbles around a three dimensional space makes a case for the format. Still, traditional animation can be seen in the wonderful introduction and Maui’s elaborate tattoos.

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Speaking of Maui – the demigod character voiced with boundless charm by Dwayne Johnson – provides a unique connection to the culture that fits perfectly for Moana. Not only is he the goal for Moana to find and help bring peace to the ocean, but he’s just as unsure of himself as she is. The two find a connection that’s (thankfully) not romantic. Instead, it’s a connection of two lost souls bound to the water before they can find any sort of destiny back on dry land. One who was abandoned by his people, the other a young girl looking to help her people without much direction. It creates a dynamic that’s both funny and keeps Moana moving past its few rough patches of waves. For the record, the only egregious example of this is an extended musical number involving a giant crab monster voiced by Jemaine Clement singing a David Bowie esque song. While that sounds like something right up the ally of any Flight of the Conchords fans, it’s definitely the lesser example of the songs here, with some interesting visuals that serve little plot purpose.

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That being said, one of the great assets of Moana really is it’s musical. While none of the songs written by Tony Award Winning mastermind of Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda and South Pacific musician Opetaia Foa’i are quite as catchy as Frozen‘s “Let It Go,” the two craft more of a true musical here. One full of songs that mostly advance the plot and give true context to the emotions & drives these characters pursue. The lyrics recall elements of smug or self assured characterization from earlier Disney films, but allow for the intense lyrical spilling that recall Miranda’s work on Hamilton as well as Foa’i’s sweeping Pacific Island sound.

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Moana isn’t probably going to be the smash hit that Frozen was. It’s less of a mainstream affair full of monsters and mythology that might distance small children when compared to the lovable approach of Frozen‘s story. Yet, the thing that puts Moana just above that is more of an authentic sense of culture and inventive atmosphere that gives it a more distinctive voice. Hell, even the climax has a wonderful subversive resolution that earns Moana so many more points than even Frozen‘s memorable climax. Moana is a journey to a far off land that’s actually much closer than anyone would perceive. It’s a celebration of not just a different culture, but a different perspective on nature and civilization. As much as we all like a dancing snowman, all of this with a moronic chicken just slightly trumps an Olaf.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Signed Oars

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