THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Moana is a great example of Disney freshening up a tried-and-true formula with an original twist. On a purely surface level, it looks incredibly familiar. You've got your plucky young heroine (not technically a princess, but close enough), a goofy animal who provides comic relief (a chicken, in this case), and a message about the importance of not believing people who tell you that you can't do something. What sets this particular movie apart is that the formula is executed from a cultural perspective we haven't seen much on screen before, in animation or live action.
Our heroine is Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), the teenage daughter of a Polynesian chieftain. Her island is being affected by an ancient curse, said to have been cast a long time ago by the demigod known as Maui. The only way to stop it is for someone to travel beyond the reef, locate Maui, and make him return the important stone he once stole from an island goddess. Moana receives signs from the ocean that she is supposed to perform this task. Against her father's wishes, she sets out to sea, eventually locating Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson). Together they embark on an adventure that shapes her destiny.
Moana's use of Polynesian culture and mythology sets it apart from similarly-themed animated features. Disney has put cultural spins on its work before, but Polynesia has never been represented before now. A lengthy backstory about the island goddess creating life and then having her heart stolen by Maui gives the movie a cool spiritual angle. Maui, meanwhile, is covered with tribal tattoos. The difference is that, because he's a demigod, the tattoos move around his body, sometimes communicating with him. These and other touches allow Moana to feel like it has a unique place in the Disney realm, even if the plot itself isn't leagues different from many of their other films.
The adventure Moana and Maui go on offers up plenty of fun, creative moments. They amusingly battle an army of coconut creatures at one point, and later come face-to-face with a lava demon. The animation in these sequences is extraordinary, with vibrant colors, intricate detail, and a sense of movement that swoops you right along with the characters. A great deal of imagination has clearly been pumped into the movie, ensuring that it's continually enjoyable to watch.
Auli'i Cravalho makes Moana a winning heroine, capturing both the character's determination and her compassion for the people of her island. Dwayne Johnson is hilarious as Maui, giving the demigod a comic sense of narcissism. He gets to belt out a self-gratifying musical number called “You're Welcome” that earns big laughs. (Johnson is surprisingly adept at song, too.) Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda co-wrote the music for the film, and each song is perfectly calibrated to serve the story.
Disney has been on a roll with their animated fare in the last few years. Between Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and now Moana, they're pumping out visually magnificent films that push the limits of what CGI animation can do, while still maintaining the character- and plot-driven focus that has turned so many of their previous efforts into timeless classics. Moana is yet another high point in the Disney catalog.
( 1/2 out of four)
Moana is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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