Moana took Disney fans back to the ocean in the most transformative way yet. In my opinion, the fifty-sixth Walt Disney Animation Studios movie marked the end of the Revival era. An era known for returning to tradition, but also taking chances with modern twists. It was the closest thing to a second Renaissance for Disney in the 2010’s. So it only made sense for proven Disney duo Clements & Musker to director their 7th film for the studio. Except this was the very first computer animated feature for the duo. Since The Princess and the Frog was their last project. Unlike all their other projects, Moana was much more original with inspiration drawn from Polynesian mythology. Something that hadn’t been explored nearly as much as Greek, Roman, or even Norse mythology.
The most well known individual among the culture was Māui. A trickster demigod kind of like a Polynesian Hercules. The directors read up on Māui and were inspired to build an animated story around him. Although he was the main character at first, Moana developed into more of a Princess movie. One that was further inspired by Polynesian wayfinding tradition. John Lasseter sent the directors to research locations and understand the culture better. Unlike Tangled and Frozen, Disney kept its “feminine” title and was successful. The only problem was releasing it the same year as Zootopia. Which seriously overshadowed it as a non-Pixar Disney movie come award season. Same with La La Land in any original song category. Still, Moana was a strong way to end an era that looked to the future…
Moana is my second favorite Polynesian animated Disney movie. Sorry but, Lilo & Stitch will always be #1 for me. Not that my brother and I didn’t get fully invested in Moana as soon as it came out. I still had my usual reservations, but it was like most Disney classics that focused on a specific culture. One that greatly benefited from a theater going experience. Although I couldn’t help but feel like it was trying to be an Oceanic Frozen. Well Moana didn’t become a major phenomenon, but it did come closest to matching it. Moana is set on the Polynesian island of Motunui. An island that was once rich with coconuts and wayfinders who explored the vast oceans. Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea (hero of men) removed the heart of island goddess Te Fiti. Causing an unstoppable curse that affects the stability of the ocean and slowly infects islands one by one.
Moana is the first Polynesian Disney Princess. Although she’s technically the daughter of a village chief, one of several meta jokes point out her qualifications. She just follows the trend of not having a Prince. Something I’m still coming to terms with. Moana is more concerned with following the sea. Even at a young age when the ocean comes to life right in front of her. Her father is just like King Triton in terms of keeping his daughter away from somewhere she truly wants to be. Her mother and father want her to focus on learning to lead her people. A people that fish, harvest coconuts, and earn tribal tattoos. The only person that supports Moana’s dream is her caring grandmother Tala. Moana grows up through song into the new village chief. She’s attractive like all other Princesses, but differs in terms of body type. Having a stronger physique with a bit more curves. Along with long wavy hair and a traditional island dress.
Disney was sure to be thorough in finding a Polynesian voice actress. Happening on 14 year old Hawaiian Auliʻi Cravalho in the process. She was so perfect for the part that she resembled Moana before even being cast. Moana’s animal sidekick is a pig named Pua. Except when he’s dropped in the first act and doesn’t even go on the adventure. The teaser sure made it look like he was important. Really it’s Alan Tudyk voiced chicken Heihei who’s the primary animal sidekick that joins Moana on the sea. A brainless chicken so dumb he serves practically no purpose outside of mild comic relief. Moana disobeys her father by attempting to pass the reef, but her grandmother reveals the truth to her before she gives up. Showing her the boats her people used and pointing her towards her destiny. Confirming that the ocean chose her to restore Te Fiti’s heart and return balance to the islands. So Moana literally has to save the world.
Her journey begins with a loss and a treacherous ocean, but it’s more helpful than it appears. Leading her to the island Maui’s been stranded on. It’s almost impossible to go wrong with Dwayne Johnson. Maui’s an immediate scene stealer and the funniest part of the movie. Like mythology, he possesses a giant magical fish hook that grants him shapeshifting abilities. Along with a bunch of other cool powers he’s more than happy to boast about. His look is pure Rock apart from his heftier build. Which contains several sentient tattoos that can interact with his body. Maui is all too eager to leave the island and sail as far away from Moana as possible. Ignoring the whole reason she came there. She escapes and the sea assists her every time she’s thrown off her boat. Maui eventually comes around in exchange for his fish hook back and the admiration of his people.
Moana & Maui make for a strong non-romantic duo. Evading a horde of coconut pirates called Kakamora, Maui teaching Moana to sail, and reaching the Realm of Monsters. A deadly subterranean lair that Moana somehow survives falling into. It contains the closest thing to a Disney villain with a flashy personality in years. Although giant Jemaine Clement voiced collector crab Tamatoa is a strange sort of random. Obsessed with shiny things and currently possessing Maui’s hook. Which he turns out to be a bit rusty with. Moana gets them out, but it takes some prodding to get Maui to open up. Revealing his sad past and the real reason he seeks admiration from mortals. They bond even more and Moana becomes an expert wayfinder. All they need to do now is get past the volcanic monster Te Kā that emerged since Maui removed the heart.
Moana goes too far and Maui’s hook is damaged in the process. Forcing him to leave and for Moana to give up on herself. All it takes is a visit from her grandmother’s spirit for her to realize who she is. Retrieving the heart, setting sail, and being reunited with a more confident Maui. It’s a thrilling final battle fraught with danger and the near loss of the heart. Heihei grabbing it is literally the only good thing he ends up doing. SPOILER ALERT! I’ve seen enough Disney movies at this point to know some kind of twist was coming. So learning Te Kā was really Te Fiti didn’t come as much of a surprise. Not that Moana walking through a parted ocean to restore the heart wasn’t an epic moment. Revealing the beautiful grassy goddess underneath. In the end, Moana restores piece, Maui is gifted a new hook, and her people return to wayfinding. Moana has such crisp and beautiful computer animation that I’d swear they were just showing off. Although Clements & Musker briefly considered continuing to use traditional animation, it was better to embrace the new medium.
The only hand drawn part is Maui’s tattoos and some Polynesian artwork. Water is beyond life-like with tropical warmth and personality. The islands have immense detail, but it’s really Te Fiti that continues to blow me away. Although it doesn’t stray too far from the Disney look, characters are made to look a bit more stylized. As a musical, Moana greatly benefits from Polynesian beats and original songs from Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda. “Where You Are” explores their culture in an entertaining way. “We Know the Way” is an epic explorer song that makes me want to sail. Maui’s song “You’re Welcome” is easily the most infectiously catchy song in the movie. Enough to forgive the Rock’s singing voice. “Shiny” is a welcomed villain song for Tamatoa, but it does come out of nowhere. “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)” is necessary, but feels like overkill this late in the movie. Same with “Know Who You Are.” The best song (and obvious attempt at another “Let it Go”) is Moana’s signature longing song “How Far I’ll Go” A wayfinding power ballad that stands on its own. Moana goes further than any Disney adventure ever dreamed imaginable.