No one would blame you if you walked out of Moana thinking you’ve been told the same tale time and time again— one where a hero(ine) must defy expectations, and go on a huge journey to save the day. But one thing it has going for it is that no other mainstream animated film has infused the culture it’s depicting (that of Pacific islanders) so well into the visuals, color palette, characters and songs so well since The Lion King. As a result it transcends it’s noticeable conventions and stands tall as an empowering, thrilling adventure story. Did I mention the hilarious chicken sidekick?
The story surrounds a girl named Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) who lives on a fictitious Polynesian island where she marveled at tales of ancient gods and high seas adventures as a young tot, and as she grows dreams of sailing out into the open ocean for herself. But she is denied doing so by her overprotective, cautious father, all before she realizes that guy doesn’t know shit, and she leaves on her quest to save her home and the people she cares about. From here we know exactly where the story is going and what beats it will take. However, even this early in the movie the visuals, especially when a toddler Moana plays with the sea as it magically parts for her, and the animals live and move around her as if she’s encapsulated inside an aquarium, are so breathtaking I didn’t even care.
Okay that was a bit of a lie. The story and its tropes will be so noticeable to anyone who watches plenty of these movies, but still, they’re tropes that work. It allows the heroine to seem heroic and confident and less like a rebellious brat. We’re taught to cheer her on when she disobeys her father for the “greater good”, which is something I’m sure parents will thank the filmmakers for.
Even though the story itself moves along in familiar motions, the character of Moana is a refreshment to the proceedings. Once she’s out to sea we discover she’s resourceful, able, and even when she could seem helpless she never stops trying. Cravalho is young but lends some strong, determined, quirky voice work to the character, especially during her big songs. If movies like this ever offer anything it’s a role model for impressionable kids to admire. She has no idea how to boat a ship on the rough seas, but she does her best to try to master the ocean, and her tenacity never falters even after a rough storm ruins everything…or did it? Queue the “disaster with a silver lining” angle!
After washing up a she discovers that’s what fate had in store for her all along, and meets the disgraced demigod she’s been looking for—Maui (Dwayne Johnson). Johnson spends his time in so many movies hammering people and things that we’ve forgotten how funny and vibrant of a performer he is. Though we don’t get to see him get to physically show this off here, his vocal work is energetic and full of gusto, particularly during his big song, “You’re Welcome”. The character is perfect for the man, who makes the arrogant ass that is Maui seem utterly delightful.
The songs, much like in The Lion King, range from slinky, villainous siren songs (“Shiny” by Jemaine Clement as a humungous, evil, gold-platted crab) to bouncy, catchy tunes accompanied by colorful set pieces and, most importantly, epic, sweeping ballads. There’s not one, but two songs that will go down as the film’s defining pieces. One is the adventurous “We Know the Way” sung by Opetaia Foa’i and Lin-Manuel Miranda that makes one imagine themselves riding a sailing ship, exploring parts unknown. As well there’s the emotional power-anthem “How Far I’ll Go” sung by Cravalho, a song which acts as her call to action, and one the actress completely owns. Seriously. I don’t know how many cover artists will try to mimic this song on YouTube, but Cravalho OWNS it. The girl was around 15 when she recorded her vocals, but she has more depth and power to her voice than that Justin Bieber gal ever will.
Though the songs are among the most cinematic and visually-complementing of anything Disney has done in decades, the winner of the film will forever be the visuals themselves. Often reminding me of the visual marvel that is Life of Pi, Moana uses breathtaking animation to turn this at-sea adventure into an enrapturing watercolor painting. Whether it be the stunning island locales that brim with warm greens and orange hues, the deep, trippy monster realm radiating lucid purples and pinks, or the deep blues of the roaring oceans that look like something ripped out of Planet Earth all of it is wondrous to behold. But the truly majestic scenes come at night, particularly during a pre-climax emotional breakdown of our lead characters. Moana slumps down on a boat that rests gently on a still black ocean that seems one with the black sky it’s reflecting. Then the spirit of her grandmother arrives in the form of a spiritual manta ray that glides across the sea like a million, bajillion stars. I know it sounds like I’m describing an acid trip, but I’m sure it’s pretty close to just that.
There are also powerful visual pieces as well, like when Moana confronts the malicious lava beast during the climax by parting the very ocean, standing triumphant on a rock as the ocean blazes around her. One can’t deny the recollection of the classic Charlton Heston scene from The Ten Commandments, but Moana totally makes his Moses look like a punk. You know your lead will stand the test of time when she makes a biblical figure look like a chump.
As I said earlier, if one leaves Moana feeling refreshed by the ocean breeze it probably won’t be because of the storyline itself. Though Moana herself is an engaging and welcome heroine, her struggle as the adventurous protagonist who’s denied her thrill-seeking desires by her parents has been told so many times you can predict the plot points as it moves along..which I did. But no matter. It’s a tested formula and gives viewers, particularly young girls, a rousing adventure tale featuring a heroine acting on her own dreams and self-determination to save the day. Some may call it cliché, but for many it will simply be awe-inspiring.