Moana (2016) ★★★½
I could go on about how awesome it is to have a mainstream Disney fantasy film that isn’t about a European-style fantasy setting. But I’m sure there are people better qualified to write about that subject, and I’m sure they’ve written about it extensively, so you can go read those articles if you want. More important to me than the “importance” of a film is whether or not it’s a good film or not.
Thankfully, Moana is an excellent movie. And, Gods, what a beautiful film. Just frikkin’ gorgeous. Every frame is filled with visual wonder. I’m hard pressed to think of a film other than The Fall that is just this beautiful. The settings are surprisingly varied and all magnificent, the character design is incredibly appealing (and the skin on these characters is some of the best CGI that I’ve ever seen), and the animation expressive and just a joy to watch. There were many, many shots in the film that made me gasp.
This is definitely a Disney Princess®™© movie; it follows much of the structure and many of the beats of a lot of 80s & 90s Disney movies. But here is a Disney Princess®™© story in which BOTH of the princess’s parents are alive and there is absolutely NO romantic plotline in the film at all. So right off the bat we’re head-and-shoulders above the standard fare.
At times it does stick pretty close to the standard Disney narrative. For example, the second song in the movie is an “I Want” song to go with such classics as “Part of Your World,” “Belle,” “One Step,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “Just Around the Riverbend,” “Almost There,” “Waiting for My Life to Begin,” “For the First Time in Forever,” etc. But by the Gods, “How Far I’ll Go” is one of the best versions of those songs in decades. And it’s up on the YouTubes! Just watch this and tell me it’s not actually moving (and not catchy as all heck).
There are also some unusual and interesting things going on in this song, like the fact that Moana is so conflicted about her desires. Usually the hero/heroine of Disney movies is pretty clear in what their goal is, but Moana is really torn. It’s just heart-wrenching the way she sing, slightly off-key, “What is wrong with me!?”
I should talk here about the voice acting. The finding of 14-year-old Auli’i Cravalho is one of the greatest coups that Disney has ever had in voice acting. She’s absolutely, 100% brilliant as Moana. And by the Gods her voice when she sings… I cannot put in words how it moves me. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was also an inspired choice to play the buffoonish blowhard demigod Maui. Though he isn’t nearly as good a singer as Auli’i, the filmmakers got an astonishing range out of his vocal performance and he holds his own singing his song.
Speaking of Maui’s song… it is also very familiar to the structure of Disney movies: the introduction of a magical character who sings a song with very surreal visuals. In fact, it seems Maui and the Genie from Aladdin appear in their respective movies at almost the exact same minute mark.
The only things preventing Moana from garnering a full four stars from me are the facts that it doesn’t quite go far enough in breaking the mold of the Disney movie structure, even though it is one of the best versions of that structure. Also, there are a bit too many sidekicks. Moana has a pig (which thankfully stays on the island for most of the movie) and a chicken; Maui has an animated tattoo; and the ocean itself makes a mute-but-expressive tendril that acts as a sidekick. Thankfully all the sidekicks are mute, but they don’t really add anything to the story (other than the ocean making it impossible for Maui to ditch Moana). Also, the chicken (voiced, astonishingly, by Alan Tudyk) is legitimately hilarous, so there’s that. Seriously, so cluckin’ funny. And THANK THE GODS THE PIG DID NOT MAKE IT ON THE BOAT. I can think of few things that would have been worse than a film with two main characters and FOUR sidekicks…
Also-also there is a “Han Solo moment” that was so disgustingly, obviously telegraphed that I groaned the moment I realized it was being set up. Just, come on! It was SO FRIKKIN’ OBVIOUS.
But other than those minor quibbles this film is a legitimate masterpiece. I found it personally much more emotionally moving than Frozen. All the songs in it are just magnificent. It has some wonderful surprises in it. It is seriously fascinating to watch a Disney movie that has no real villain in it. And
<spoiler>I just love love love a film that is obviously building to a big action climax, but then realizes that action is a false victory and the real victory is achieved WITH A SONG.
I plan on owning this movie and watching it many, many times. I think Te Ka is too scary for my sensitive three-year-old daughter right now, but I am chomping at the bit to introduce her to a strong, weak, feisty, scared, stubborn, empathic heroine in Moana. Faafetai mo se tifaga matagofie.