For a simple animated kids film about a Polynesian princess (technically, she’s only the daughter of a chief, but you know what Disney’s marketing department will say — there is even a line in the movie about the criteria for princess-hood) who seeks her own destiny to help save her people, there are a lot of expectations around this movie. For starters, this movie follows in the tradition of mega-hit Frozen, taking a legend/folktale and giving it new, animated, musical life. The animation has a similar style (most notably with those giant eyes!), and the story is once again full of female empowerment and animal sidekicks (a little pig and a ridiculously stupid rooster, along with “the ocean” as a kind of ally or pet — bet no one’s ever tried that before). Along for the ride is a demi-god named Maui: a thick-chested, tattoo-covered, shape-changing trickster, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Together, they quest to restore a magical jewel to the heart of a dormant island goddess.
While there are many similarities between this movie and its other Disney predecessors, story-wise the most recent analogue is actually the marvellous Kubo and the Two Strings. Again, there’s a kind of folktale context in which a young person sets off on a quest with some magical allies. In fact, there’s even a very similar scene in both movies where a magic object is stuck in the back of a large monster and our heroes need to retrieve it. I love that Disney and other animation studios are still telling folktales to kids. Animation is one of the best media for capturing the magic and wonder of those kinds of stories. It’s also great that Disney continues to tour the world to bring different cultures to its young audiences. I know that it is often probably more trouble than it’s worth given that there’s always a controversy or two and there’s a lot of political correctness to be maintained, but I really hope that they don’t give up on this goal. The good definitely outweighs the bad, in my opinion.
What amazes me about each new feature from Disney and Pixar animators is how they just keep getting more skilled and masterful at the animation. In this movie, there are (as to be expected) many scenes of the beaches and oceans of the South Pacific. While I enjoyed all the fun, the songs, and the story, to me the most impressive feature of this movie was the incredible water animation (apparently they developed new technologies just for that aspect of this movie). The beaches, waves and water looked unbelievably realistic, and every time we looked out into the horizon over the endless ocean, I could not believe that none of it was real — it all existed only in the computer! If you’re waiting for home video, I would say that the ocean scenes alone are worth seeing on the big screen. Less worthy of bigness, but still pretty cool is how they have also seemed to master the computer generation of curly hair. I know it started in Pixar’s Brave, so maybe that tech is only being perfected in Moana and Maui’s hair, but I gotta say, they both have a lot of bouncy curly locks that any shampoo commercial would kill for.
So what about the story, you ask? It’s pretty good. As I mentioned, it’s an ocean-borne quest where Moana needs to set off to find Maui the demi-god and bring him to the island of Matanui to restore its jewelled heart (and thus restore the life power to the islands, which are dying). Of course, nothing goes without a hitch and a couple of side missions. There’s even a bit of a twist ending (which again reminded me of the twist ending in Kubo and the Two Strings).
The two main actors are pretty good. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho is youthful and spunky as Moana. I think the casting was perfect. Johnson was also excellent as Maui. He definitely has a more modern, humourous personality which reminded me a little of Eddie Murphy’s dragon character in Mulan in that it seemed anachronistic but it still worked and was quite funny. There are a few other guest roles (including Alan Tudyk as Hei Hei the rooster, which still perplexes me because the rooster does not talk) with a pretty fun cast. If he sounds familiar, but you can’t put your finger on the voice of Tamatoa (the crab monster), it’s the distinctive voice of Flight of the Conchords‘s Jemaine Clement.
Last but not least, the music was enjoyable as well. There are some rousing epic numbers as well as some funny ones. Moana has her own little anthem, which is not going to be “Let It Go” big (but how could any song hope to be that big?). Frankly, I can’t remember Moana’s song anymore, but during the movie it was nice. Lin-Manuel Miranda (the superstar creator of Broadway megahit Hamilton) also worked on some of the songs — I’m guessing it was Maui’s number, “You’re Welcome”.
Moana is a really fun movie and I am sure that it’s going to do really well at the box office and all the kids are going to want to get tattoos now (only to be disappointed when once they realize that tattoos don’t actually move animatedly). Despite all our expectations, I think Disney has lived up this time. (4.5 out of 5)