REVIEW: “Moana” is a modern Disney masterpiece, and 2016’s real girl-power movie of the year

in Disney, Movies, Movies & TV, Reviews

Back in 2014, when Walt Disney Animation Studios first announced “Moana” as their 56th theatrically-released feature, fans could already tell it was going to be something special. First of all, the film was to be helmed by Disney heavy-hitters John Musker and Ron Clements, who previously delivered smashes like “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”, not to mention more modest successes (but still cult favorites) like “The Great Mouse Detective” and “The Princess and the Frog”.

Then, as more details were gradually revealed, we learned about the massive amount of talent, in both the cast and creative team, that was being assembled to complete this grand adventure in true Disney style. Now Disney Animation’s long journey is finally coming to and end, and the movie is ready to hit theaters. This past weekend the key players gathered in Los Angeles for the movie’s world premiere and an exclusive press conference on the week leading up to the big release.


“Moana” is the story of a young girl (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) growing up in Oceania, a group of over a thousand islands scattered around the southern Pacific ocean. She dreams of a life at sea, but her family has long since settled in their safe but tiny cove-side village. Moana’s grandmother, the wise Tala, tells stories to the island’s children about mythical demigods and their battles with giant monsters. Little does Moana know that her grandmother’s stories will soon turn out to have been true.

One day Moana discovers her people’s seafaring past, and when she learns of an ancient evil threatening her home, she sets out on daring adventure with only a legendary stone called the Heart of Tafiti and her dim-witted rooster sidekick Hei Hei as company. Along the way, she recruits one of the previously-mentioned demigods, a trickster named Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to help her on her quest.


The movie immediately finds a strong footing by establishing a world grounded in our own reality, but also accentuated by mythological flourishes that are appropriate to the geography and cultures being depicted. The vistas of Oceania are vibrant and beautiful, warm and comforting, perfect mood-building for setting up a home that one would be hesitant to leave.

The characters are likeable and endearing without coming across as cloying. Both leads– the scrappy, self-serious Moana and the charming but devious Maui– are deserving of their hefty amounts of screentime, and it goes along way that you actually want to see the former succeed in her expedition and the latter become a better person in order to get her there. She’s the Mattie Ross to his Rooster Cogburn… or in a slightly more contemporary analogy, she’s Luke Skywalker and he’s Han Solo.


“Moana”, like so many of its Disney Princess movie predecessors, is of course a musical, and its songs are likely to settle in among the most memorable from the company’s long history. Original songwriters Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) and Opetaia Foa’i have put together some very catchy ditties and soaring ballads that perfectly reflect their characters’ personalities, and fit in snugly within composer Mark Mancina’s moving score.

It probably goes without saying considering the team who created it, but “Moana” is also very funny. Screenwriter Jared Bush (“Zootopia”) has crafted a consistently amusing and briskly-paced adventure story, with a healthy number of meta in-jokes and allusions to other Disney films that fans will undoubtedly get a kick out of. Maui’s sentient, hand-animated tattoo Mini-Maui (who serves as the character’s conscience, no relation to Jiminy Cricket) is in itself the source of at least a dozen good belly laughs.

"MINI MAUI" animation test still frame. Artist: Eric Goldberg, Animation Supervisor.
Artist: Eric Goldberg.

I have no major complaints about “Moana”, and as a Disney Princess movie it hits all the right notes. It even eschews the traditional love-story aspect of princesses past and goes down more of an “Odd Couple” strained-friendship buddy-picture route, which ultimately feels more earned and satisfying, not to mention fresher. The only small issue I had with the story is that it feels a little predictable. Once Moana and Maui meet up and get on their way, it’s easy to guess where they’ll end up and what the resolution will be. But I can’t hold that against what amounts to an epic hero’s journey. These stories have familiar beats for a reason.

I have a feeling “Moana” is going to be a huge success, and while it might not make “Frozen”-level piles of cash for Disney, I can already see the marketing blitz and eventual theme park presence coming down the pipeline. 2016 feels like a year where we need genuine, strong role models for women in American culture, and yet we’ve gone through a few pretenders and disappointments so far. In that department, and innumerable others, “Moana” is the real deal.


“Moana” will be released in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, November 23rd.

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