After the so-called Disney Renaissance that began with “The Little Mermaid” and tapered after “Mulan,” Disney has worked its way back up the ladder with hits like “Frozen” and “Zootopia.” And now comes “Moana,” one of the greatest of them all.
“Moana” tells the story of, well, Moana, a young woman driven by her love of both her island and the sea. In typical Disney fashion, she is held back by well-meaning parents but must eventually choose her own path. And so she sets off on a journey to find the demigod Maui and to restore the heart of the mother goddess Te Fiti, guided by the spirit of Moana’s grandmother and the ocean itself.
Say what you will about Disney, but this studio knows how to weave a fairytale. Though Disney may arguably not be the most original of storytellers (is any movie ever fully original?), the studio hits a long-awaited perfection with “Moana.” Disney has built upon its own tropes throughout its history — a young woman with an “I want” personality, the often lackluster love interest, the animal sidekick and all that singing. With “Moana,” Disney has brought these tropes to full fruition, with a three-dimensional heroine, no need for a love interest and powerfully upbeat music, all of which work together to tell a story paying homage to Polynesian culture while also speaking to the hearts of anyone who watches the film.
First and foremost, “Moana” boasts astounding animation. The animation of water is perhaps the most dazzling, with bright blue tones and photo-realistic movements. Honestly, I felt like I could reach through the screen and touch it. Every scene feels rich and colorful.
The voice acting is fantastically on-point. Rather than casting a well-known Hollywood actress, Disney cast 16-year-old native Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho as Moana. Based on her performance here, she is sure to have a long, illustrious career ahead of her. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson brings Maui to life with believable slips between easygoing and passionate. To top it off, I had no idea he could sing, but sing he does. And fabulously so.
Rounding everything off is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s excellent songwriting. I suppose it’s no surprise coming from the creator of “Hamilton,” but each song in “Moana” has lyrics that are actually meaningful for the characters and builds upon the Polynesian presence in the film. Rather than sounding like interchangeable ditties from top 40 radio, the music brings Moana’s world to life. While I doubt “Let It Go” will be fading away anytime soon, Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” will surely be sneaking into Disney fan’s playlists to give “Frozen” a run for its money.
But while “Moana” as a film is astounding, it must be noted that some viewers may be disappointed by the mishmashing of Polynesian cultures. It’s important to remember that not all Polynesian cultures are the same, nor are they interchangeable. Much like the problem when Asians are treated like they are all Chinese, we must remember that’s not the case. “Moana” has a bit of an excuse in that it takes place before these separate cultures came to be, but we modern viewers need to listen to our Polynesian family members and friends when they bring up concerns with “Moana.”
Despite these cultural problems, “Moana” stands as a testament of strong, emotional storytelling that will speak to your soul. Go see it. Now.