Film Review: Moana

I've a 14-year old daughter who has been lobbying me to write about Moana on my blog so Vicki, this is for you.

My family saw Moana on Christmas night and I was lobbied for a follow-up viewing on the afternoon of New Year's Day. While the image at the top of this post indicates it is from the creators of Zootopia and Frozen, much of the creative team worked on Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and The Princess and the Frog. I can safely put it in the top tier of Disney animated films.

Moana tells the story of a girl, Moana, who lives on an island ruled by her father. She is heir to his role of chief. The island is a paradise, providing everything they need. Moana is a dreamer, being called to the sea. However, going out beyond the reefs around the island is considered dangerous and forbidden - and as a result her father, who is overall supportive of her and very loving, constantly discourages her urges to go out to sea. Her paternal grandmother, "the village crazy lady", on the other hand, is a big believer in the legends that say they will have to return to the sea - for ages ago the demigod Maui stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, unleashing great evil on the world. Someone will need to find the heart and Maui and make him return the heart. As crops and fishing begin failing, Moana goes on a journey on her own to do just that.

It would be unfair to give away much more detail so I'll focus a bit on the tone of the film and the performances. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays Maui and I'll echo everyone else - who knew he could sing? Maui is a trickster demigod - not a bad guy and can usually be pushed towards heroism, but he has a selfish side where he's more interested in the praise for his deeds than he is in doing them because they are the right thing to do. Newcomer Auli'i Cravalho is perfectly cast as Moana, a teenage girl wrestling with her love of her home and family and her love of the sea. Casting an actual teen works well, as I've a hard time imagining an adult singing with such earnestness.

Musically, Moana is one of the best Disney films I've watched. It is very diverse, with songs yearning for the sea and discovery, over the top self-praise from Maui, and a glam-rock/David Bowie inspired number with a narcissist/homicidal crab. It makes use of both South Pacific culture and more contemporary Broadway and pop inspired music, often blending them together (such as ""We Know the Way"  being written and performed by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and South Pacific musician Opetaia Foa'i). 

Beyond all this, I'm a lover of nautical tales and this was a great one. The gamer is contemplating a Polynseian-inspired role-playing campaign. One thing I liked about Moana is everything in the film was from the perspective of the fictional Polynesian culture of the film - for the purposes of the film, their myths and legends were true. We don't even know if there's a "mainland" in this setting - outside of Moana's island the only intelligent beings we encounter are gods and demigods, the aforementioned crab, and a bunch of coonut pirates (work with me on that). 

At the time of my writing Moana is nearing the end of its theatrical run. If you miss it in the theater, I'd definitely suggest seeking it out when it comes out on video.


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