Clear, vibrant, blue water. Tactile sand. Hair that blows in the wind, gets wet and looks wet, gets sandy and looks sandy! Music, glorious music. And lyrics! Lin-Manuel Miranda lyrics! Moana, the newest release by Disney Animation Studios is a gorgeous film and a delightful adventure that is a pure treat for the eyes and the ears.
There’s a shell of a fairly typical Disney princess movie hiding under the surface of Moana. Moana, voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, is the daughter of her village’s chief and is destined to become chief herself. She desperately wants to get out and explore more of what life has to offer than just what is on her island, but tradition and duty (and her father) are keeping her where she is. In the meantime her grandmother continues to push her to find herself and embrace her destiny. This is fairly familiar territory for a Disney film. Where it breaks the mold a bit, and where I found it to be truly special, is that none of the constraints placed upon Moana are there because of her gender. Her agency, her power, her place as a leader in her tribe is never questioned. There’s a deeper fear attached to her father’s prohibition against leaving the island that gets explored later in the film, but it really has nothing to do with Moana herself.
There’s also some really sly, fun critiques of masculinity and male bravado as embodied by Maui, a demi-god who has been isolated to an island after stealing the heart of the ocean. Maui, voiced wonderfully by Dwayne Johnson, has many powers, chief among them his power to shape shift into any animal he desires so long as he has his magical fish hook (think, a large hook-shaped spear, not a small hook you put on a line). In ancient times Maui was a powerful figure who stole fire from the Gods to give to man, pulled islands up out of the ocean, and got up to all sorts of mischief and fun. Stealing the heart of the ocean, however, was a bridge too far and he’s been isolated, without his fish hook, for a very long time. Moana must journey to find him to save her village from a growing blight that is destroying the plant and animal life on her island. When Moana finds him he is full of arrogant bravado that all ultimately can be traced back to an insecurity he has. The dynamic between Moana and Maui is really fun to watch play out. Maui is big, muscular, strong, but also selfish, impulsive, and fearful of having his dominance questioned. Maui also provides some fun meta-commentary on whether or not Moana fits the definition of a princess or not, so watch out for that.
Attention must also be paid to Heihei (voiced, or at least noises made by Alan Tudyk), an idiotic chicken that stows away on Moana’s boat and ends up along for the ride on the whole adventure. He’s hilarious, and sure to be a fan favorite. However, this is the second Disney film in a row (after Pixar’s Finding Dory) to feature an idiotic bird who’s main purpose in the film is to be laughed at for being stupid. Finding Dory had Becky who was similarly intellectually challenged. Both birds clearly have some kind of developmental problem and both films mock them incessantly for that. This is perhaps a bigger problem in Finding Dory as the premise of that film posits that animals have inner lives, voices, and are, essentially human. In that world, laughing at Becky is basically like laughing at a person with a developmental disorder. It’s troubling. Moana isn’t quite in the same boat (pun definitely intended), but this is an interesting thing to keep an eye on.
Let’s talk about the music. The score was composed by Mark Mancina (The Lion King) who also wrote the original songs along with Opetaia Foa’I, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. There score is beautiful and will definitely make my rotation of movie scores I listen to while working. The songs are downright glorious. Soulful, soaring, hairs-stand-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck great. As an avid listener of Hamilton: An American Musical I have become very familiar with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s style and it’s clearly present in the lyrics here. I also got a huge smile on my face when I heard Christopher Jackson’s voice in an early song and Miranda’s voice later. Jackson sings in place of Temuera Morrison, who voices Moana’s father. Jackson also originated the part of George Washington in the Broadway production of Hamilton, so his voice was instantly recognizable to me. I’ve been listening to the music while I write this review and it really is wonderful, integrating English and Tokelauan in really interesting ways.
Overall, Moana offers everything you’re looking for from a Disney animated adventure. A great story, beautiful animation, and amazing music and songs. One short note for parents, the film does feature a pretty scary lava monster in a few key, intense sequences. A few of the younger kids (3 or 4 years old-ish) at my screening were pretty scared, so keep that in mind. It opens on Wednesday, November 23rd in theaters across the country.