The latest animated musical from the folks at Walt Disney Animation Studios (Tangled, Frozen) has a great deal going for it. It’s animation style is warm, inviting and features a lush color pattern that suits its Polynesian roots; it’s characters (human and otherwise) are charming and full of personality; and the songs (some of which are co-written by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda) are soaring and catchy while being inspirational and funny. And even though the filmmakers couldn’t have possibly known when production on the film began what the world would be like when it was released, perhaps Moana’s most impressive achievement is giving us a glimpse into a society on the verge of accepting its first female leader, who has a vision for her people of taking them beyond the reef that surrounds their island, to a scary and unfamiliar place of the unknown.
Far be it from me to politicize a Meanwhile, the island is falling victim to a kind of curse that killing off all plant life, and Moana believes this is tied to an ancient myth inDisney princess movie, but if this film had come out a year ago, these elements might not have jumped out the way they do today. The young woman in mind is Moana Waiakiki (voiced by Auli’i Carvalho), whose chieftain father Tui (Temuera Morrison) has been preparing her to lead their people since she was a little girl. But from an early age, it was clear that Moana had a special relationship with the sea, and as a result, she has always been tempted to grab a boat and sail out past the reef, where it is strictly forbidden to go. But as she gets older, the pull of the ocean is irresistible.
Meanwhile, the island is falling victim to a kind of curse that killing off all plant life, and Moana believes this is tied to an ancient myth involving a demi-god named Maui and something he stole from the heart of the island.With gentle nudging from her grandmother (Rachel House) and mother (singer Nicole Scherzinger), Moana also discovers a few key truths about the history of her people and eventually she ventures out far (with her trusted companion, a wonky-eyed rooster named Heihei, who doesn’t speak, but whose weird utterances are voiced by Alan Tudyk) beyond the reef in search of Maui.
Up until this point in Moana, things are pretty to look at and feature a few pleasant songs (including the mission statement anthem “How Far I’ll Go”), but once things move off the island, the world gets bizarre. As voiced by the bottomless energy cells of Dwayne Johnson, Maui is almost like a walking storybook himself. Covered in ever-moving tattoos, his very body art is like its own animated film, telling us stories from his past, commenting on his present condition and providing him advice and even criticism when required. More often than not, the tattoos side with Moana and push Maui to be more of the hero he used to be and help her find the lost “heart” and return it to its rightful place to heal her island.
Maui and Moana go on their own personal Odyssey through trials, including an encounter with a greedy, deceitful crab (Jemaine Clement) and a final test against a lava monster that is actually so wonderfully conceived and rendered, it might almost be too scary for little kids. The lava monster towards the end of Moana also reminded me very much of one the villains from the latest Marvel movie, Doctor Strange.
As directed by the great Disney team of Ron Clements and John Musker (The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog), Moana moves between surreal fantasy, traditional Polynesian mythology, pure slapstick, and an uplifting story about a young girl so tapped into her people’s ways and traditions that she’s able to draw strength and courage from such knowledge. Maui’s motivations are more about seeking redemption for a misdeed committed long ago, and if he’s able to make that happen, his own life seem inconsequential (I’m not saying he dies; I’m just saying he’d be okay if he did).
What it came down to for me is that Moana hit the spot. It’s a film whose characters value life, positive energy & deeds, and are determined to rid their corner of the world of all destructive forces. That message feels good to hear right now, even if it only lasts for a few hours. Being detached from reality isn’t a great place to spend your whole life, but it’s a nice, sunny, warm place to visit every so often.