Moana – A Review

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It’s a little surprising that it took me this long to see a project involving two of my favorite people – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. While I was looking forward to watching Moana because of their involvement, it always slipped down my list of priorities at the Cineplex. Animated films are never my go to movies; I usually enjoy them – especially if made by Pixar – but clearly I am not their target demographic. And then there is the unfortunate fact that you are going to find a lot of kids at a kids’ movie. I like children just fine, but I take my movie going pretty seriously and that doesn’t always jibe well a room full of excited kiddos. It’s not fair to them for me to get annoyed – this is after all their turf – so when I do go to see animated films I try to do so after a movie has been out for a while and at off-times when the theater will be less crowded. Of course, my annoyance at theater etiquette is not limited to the younger set; I’d actually take a theater full of kids over a theater full of people over the age of 70. In my experience, the latter has a harder time not talking during a movie.

I’ve been so busy trying to get a jump start on my Oscar death race that I was in danger of missing Moana completely; the number of screenings was dwindling and it was already at the area’s second run theater, a sure sign that its days on the big screen were numbered. Since Moana will likely get some sort of Oscar nomination – either for Best Animated Feature or Best Original Song – there was no more putting this off. It was see it now or kick myself later when nominations were announced and I’d missed my chance.

Moana tells the story of a young woman (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) who is the daughter of the chief (voiced by Temuera Morrison/Christopher Jackson) of the Polynesian island Motunui. She is drawn to the ocean, though her father forbids her from going out beyond the reef and insists that the island provides everything that they need. Instead, he wants her to focus on learning the responsibilities of leading the villagers for when she eventually becomes chief. However, the island appears to be in peril – vegetation begins dying and the fish that were previously plentiful have become scarce. Legend has it that many years ago the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) stole and lost the heart of the island goddess Te Feti, which has caused the darkness that is now consuming their island. In order to save the island, Moana must disobey her father and set off on a journey to find Maui and force him to return the heart to Te Feti.

There is a lot to like about Moana. The film brings some much needed diversity to the Disney universe by introducing characters of Polynesian descent and their culture. While Disney has been making strides in offering more representation in their movies, there is still a lot of work to be done and I am glad to see the trend continue. The songs are pretty catchy and if you have listened to the Hamilton soundtrack as many times as I have, you can definitely pick up the Lin-Manuel Miranda influences. On more than one occasion I thought to myself “this song has hints of ‘Dear Theodosia’ or ‘Alexander Hamilton’ in it.” I’ve had the song “You’re Welcome” stuck in my head since I saw the movie (it probably doesn’t hurt that it’s sung by The Rock). As a Flight of the Conchords fan, I also especially enjoyed Jermain Clement’s performance of “Shiny.” Miranda said that he wrote the song as a tribute to David Bowie, which you can sense when you hear it. It’s a great song.

Most important to me, however, is that Moana does a lot to break the “princess complex” that Disney has relied on far too long for its female characters. Overtly, Moana rejects being called a princess; she is the future chief of her people, a position that appears to have been exclusively held by men but is presented without any question or commentary as to her right to this leadership post. There is also no love story in Moana; the question of who Moana will marry is never even discussed and her relationship with Maui is 100% platonic. Even Brave, which is lauded by many as an important departure from the typical princess story, is focused on Merida’s pending betrothal. Moana is the story of a girl on an adventure to help save her island; she’s brave, smart, and when she sees her people are in trouble, she finds a solution. Moana is an important next step in modernizing how women and girls are portrayed in Disney movies. It was honestly refreshing to see.

While I generally enjoyed Moana, I did find parts of it a little slow. That doesn’t bode well for holding the attention of a 4 year old, since I’d like to think I have marginally more focus that they do. Perhaps because despite all of it progressive features Moana still follows a formula that contributed to my occasional boredom. Since this was a Disney movie, it was never really in doubt that Moana would be successful in her quest. The film also gave her an animal sidekick, since I’m pretty sure that’s mandatory, in the form of a dumb chicken, which was moderate amusing in the beginning but had diminishing returns with every example of how simple-minded Hey Hey was. Moana could have also used a little more humor. There were some occasional moments that were funny, but there weren’t any laugh out loud moments for kids or adults. The Rock has good comedic sensibilities, so I wish that they had given him more material on this front. There was only one child at the screening I was at – there were only 7 people total, which was amazing – and I don’t think I heard him laugh once the entire duration of the movie. Animated films tend to lay on the silly humor a little too much for my enjoyment, but Moana went too far in the other direction and was perhaps too serious. Throw in a wise cracking seagull or something – if not just for comedy, but for merchandising potential.

Moana is certainly a solid film and is an encouraging evolution of the typical Disney princess story. The music is top notch and the adventure that Moana embarks on is a lot of fun. The animation is really beautiful – it’s impressive how realistic the ocean looks in some of the scenes. Spending time with The Rock is always a good thing in my book, which is another added perk of Moana. There are moments when the action drags a bit and the film could be a bit shorter and funnier, but overall it was quite enjoyable. I haven’t seen enough of the other potential best animated film nominees to know if Moana has a chance at the Oscar, but it’s worth seeing regardless.

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