MOVIE REVIEW: Moana
“MOANA”-- 4 STARS
She may wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, but don’t you dare call Moana a “princess.” The enterprising titular “chieftain’s daughter” is a breezy breath of warm Pacific air surging through a Mouse House built on castles, corsets, and crowns. Promoting powerhouse diversity and pushing away the trappings of romance, “Moana” is a progressive step from Walt Disney Animation Studios carrying wonderful messages for young girls in a Millennial day-and-age that is too often obsessed with body image and glamour.
This ethnic original folk tale from the co-writer of “Zootopia” exists in a mythological era where, a millennium ago, the island goddess Te Fiti created all land and life only to have her symbolic jade heart stolen by the vain and hook-wielding demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). Now cursed and consumed by a lava monster named Te Ka, the global life-giving roots of Te Fiti have been slowly decaying ever since. One day on the small South Pacific island of Motunui, a bouncy little toddler named Moana, under the care of her ritualistic grandmother Tala (Rachel House), is shown the lost heart by a welcoming ocean that parts away in her presence. As Moana grows older into a teen, that memory creates an eager curiosity for what exists beyond her island.
Built to wear her own “Strong Female Character” t-shirt made of fronds and flowers, Moana Waialiki (Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter and only child of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) and his queen Sina (Nicole Scherzinger) as they deal with the fading crops on Motunui. Moana comes into the possession of the heart and learns of its necessary place to restore Te Fiti. Armed with her own will and courage, she embarks on her own to find Maui to set things right, sailing into a Candyland path of peril that is the open ocean and all its mysteries and threats.
“Moana” blooms in all directions with beautiful animation and artistry. The Polynesian-inspired locales will make you thirst for the umbrella drink of your choice and the email address of your local travel agent. The tremendous CGI rendering of water, both fluid in volume and dynamically alive when enchanted, has come a long way since James Cameron’s living column of water in “The Abyss” 27 years ago. The character designs are incredibly detailed, right down to Maui’s animated tattoos that act as his conscience and documentarian and the most realistic body and facial movements of singing characters ever seen in an animated film.
Coupled creatively and boldly within the episodic waves of sea-faring adventure, “Moana” is a superb musical entry of composer Mark Mancina’s music backed by songs written by the team of “Hamilton” Broadway darling Lin-Manuel Miranda and New Zealand Te Vaka singer/songwriter Opetaia Foa’i. While “Moana” may lack a true dynamite showstopper on the level of “Let it Go” from “Frozen” or an instant toe-tapper equivalent to the “Be Our Guest/Under the Sea” 1990’s hey-day, the film’s music is endlessly vibrant and a welcome change of pace from what you normally associate with the entire catalog of Disney fairy tales.
While we’re talking music, let’s just say it out loud. “Moana” is better than “Frozen.” Send your icy glares and blare your Idina Menzel vocals all you want! All “Frozen” has on “Moana” is that huge power ballad and a nice oppositional rub on love-at-first-sight.
“Moana” offers a better narrative, more interesting characters, and a more imaginative story setting. There are no wise-cracking comedic side characters that you want to punch in the animated face because they can’t shut up and are being paid for weak zingers (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Gilbert Godfrey, Josh Gad, Eddie Murphy, Buddy Hackett, and dozens more over the years). Most importantly, “Moana” is composed of superior touchstone themes built around a proud bedrock ideal of female independence. It does not rely on unnecessary romance or the need of a big, strapping man to solve a woman’s problems. The film and its heroine are richly hewn with an engaging mythology free of belaboring and misplaced dominance.
LESSON #1: DWAYNE “THE ROCK” JOHNSON MAKES EVERYTHING BETTER-- My “San Andreas” review last year called for this lesson statement to be etched in stone. Go ahead and add a shrine around that stone to the man who’s been called a “savior of stale” and “Franchise Viagra.” Johnson’s radiant manly charisma oozes through the pixels and tattoos that create his boisterous character. His presence and stature elevates the entire film.
LESSON #2: WHERE ONE IS MEANT TO BE-- Moana has her assigned place as the monarch-in-waiting on Motunui, but the spiritual song of the ocean calls to her. Without a hint of brattiness, she is mindful of her responsibility and cares for her homeland’s sustainment. A large part of Moana’s journey becomes reminding her own people of their explorer roots as to where and how they came to be.
LESSON #3: WHO ONE IS MEANT TO BE-- Home is one thing, but role is another. Without question, Moana could stay on Motunui and be a successful leader, but she would be denying a big piece of both her destiny and her individuality. Strong without being headstrong, Moana needs this personal quest to answer a calling, correct generational trajectory, and find her place of influence.