Review – Moana

Frozen felt like a giant leap forward for Disney. It took the classic Disney formula of a fairy tale princess and her animal sidekick going on an adventure and modernized it by adding computer animation and modern themes.

Moana expands on this modernization by taking the story further outside of Disney’s comfort zone and dropping any love story in favor of focusing on the young girl’s quest to save her people. It’s a brilliant move on Disney’s part to reinvigorate the genre. As a result, Moana is an original and exciting film that is sure to end up in heavy rotation in American households for years to come. (Luckily, the music, which was written by Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa‘i, is incredibly catchy, even if it’s the 1,000th time you’ve heard it.)

The story was partly inspired by history and myths of Oceania. Moana focuses on a time in the region’s history 3,000 years ago when explorers stopped voyaging out to find new territories. In the film, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of island chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). She will one day take over as the leader of her people. But while her father is adamant that they must never travel beyond the reef, Moana is filled with wanderlust and wishes the islanders could return to their roots as wayfinders. She is secretly encouraged to follow these instincts by her grandmother Tala (Rachel House), who takes it upon herself to tell the island’s children about their history.

While Chief Tui remains steadfast that no one can leave the island, others begin to panic as their crops start dying and they can no longer find any fish to eat. There is a legend that a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart from the island goddess Te Fiti, which is the reason the crops are now dying. After receiving several signs from the ocean that she is the one who can save them, Moana sets out to find Maui and restore Te Fiti’s heart.

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I love that the film is a pure hero’s journey. Moana isn’t just a petulant kid unwilling to obey her parent’s orders. She’s going out on a noble quest to selflessly save her people in spite of her father’s warnings. It feels true to the spirit of classic Disney films, but instead of sneaking out to a ball to meet a prince or trading her voice to walk on dry land, Moana is running away to save her people.

The film is at its best when Moana is paired with Maui, who turns out to be a egomaniac who believes she’s tracked him down to thank him for all he’s done for mankind. Maui is a pure antihero, one who is only seeking praise. He has no desire to set right his great wrong. He’d much prefer to ditch Moana and get back to adventuring. But the two need each other – Moana needs Maui’s strength, knowledge and sailing capabilities and Maui needs her compassion and reasoning skills.

Maui is the best role Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has ever played. It’s such a perfect part for him. Beyond the fact that Johnson’s mother is Samoan and he has tribal tattoos similar to the ones Maui sports in the film, it’s the first movie role to fully capture the impish charm that made The Rock such a memorable character in the WWE. He had the ability to be charismatic and hilarious while doing awful things as a pro wrestling heel, which is something the film taps into with Maui. He should be a villain, but the writing and the Rock’s inherent likability make him a delightful antihero instead.

The tropical setting also leads to some truly beautiful settings. The lush greens of the islands and deep blues of the ocean shine through the film’s rich computer animation. The action scenes all seem epic and gorgeous as well, including a showdown with coconut pirates and an underwater battle with a sparkly singing crab voiced by Jemaine Clement.

By going further outside their comfort zone, both in the setting and the film’s story/themes, Disney has given fans a modern classic. Moana is more than just a worthy successor to the classic Disney fairy tales of the past; it feels like the dawn of a new era of Disney greatness. I’m very excited to see what the future brings.

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Written by Joel Murphy. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact Joel at murphyslaw@hobotrashcan.com

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