By Gavin Arucan | Staff Writer
Spring-boarding off the critically acclaimed hit “Zootopia,” Disney Animation Studios brings Polynesian culture and Broadway-esque musical numbers to the big screen with the long awaited “Moana.” The animated film depicts the adventures of the titular young girl, Moana, as she travels across the vast ocean to find the mythical demigod, Māui, in order to save her island.
“Moana” was one of the most hyped for movies here in the islands since natives were going to be able to see their culture and traditions portrayed by such a popular studio like Disney. The iconic studio made all the right decisions leading up to the movie’s release, most notably with the casting of Mililani teen Auliʻi Cravalho as Moana and Samoan celebrity actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Māui. Now that “Moana” hit theaters on Tuesday night, I can confirm that the movie successfully delivers everything the trailers promised in every way that counts.
At its core, “Moana” is a road trip movie. Two characters, who don’t really like each other, are forced to travel together. On their journey, the two face many obstacles that slowly brings them together and teaches them how to get along. Just take that basic plot, replace the road with the expanse of the ocean, and you have “Moana.” It’s a very common story trope but is also one of my favorites for animated films because it presents many opportunities for creative ideas and characters during an epic adventure.
All three of the monsters that Moana and Māui encounter on their adventure are refreshingly inventive and fun to watch. Tamatoa, a gargantuan crab with an affinity for shiny objects, is delightfully quirky despite some of his comedy falling flat. However, his David Bowie-inspired song and brutal fight scene easily makes up for his few groaners. The final villain, who I wouldn’t dare spoil, is immensely powerful and legitimately intimidating despite her short screen time. However, the first adversary Moana and Māui had to fight was my absolute favorite. The Kakamora pirate gang, which I thought were Menehune at first, engage the heroic duo in a wonderful “Mad Max: Fury Road” inspired action sequence. The unique setting and fast pace set the tone for the rest of the adventure and let me know that I was in good hands for the rest of the film. Also, I believe that this is the first time that a Disney animated film of this type breaks the long standing cliche of the singular irredeemable “Disney villain.” It’s a nice departure from the typical Disney flick.
Despite having unique villains, the spotlight always stayed on Moana and Māui throughout the film. The two have fantastic chemistry, which makes their interactions fun to watch. Cravalho lends a distinct voice to Moana that only a local islander can. If you haven’t noticed, people in Hawaiʻi do in fact have an accent. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays Dwayne ‘”The Rock” Johnson in all of his roles, and Māui is no exception. For most actors, that would become boring and repetitive, but Johnson is just too likable to fall into that category. Māui’s blatant hubris makes for hilarious reactions from Moana, who is constantly frustrated by the demi-god’s selfishness. The characters also work well in emotional scenes in addition to comedic and action ones. There are a couple of scenes in “Moana” that I admit I cried a little in. I haven’t been quite that big of a mess since watching a certain tragic scene in “Inside Out.”
Disney Animation Studios also does a phenomenal job with its animation. Disney has quickly been improving in the animation department, reaching photo-realistic levels of detail. The vibrant colors make for some of the most visually spectacular settings in any Disney movies. The island environment utilizes all of the best shades of green mixed with the bright colors of various flowers, most of which I’ve actually seen on Oʻahu. However, it’s the water animation that truly steals the show in the animation department. The water looks so real that I felt like I could reach out and touch it. The shades of blue perfectly supplements the greens of the Polynesian islands, the browns and reds of Moana’s boat, and the different hues of the sky throughout the day and night. The movie also does its part in keeping the art of hand-drawn animation alive through Māui’s moving tattoos and a few other scenes.
The animation and characters are all great in “Moana,” but the real standout of the film are musical numbers written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame and Opetaia Foaʻi. “Moana” combines the flexibility and grandness of the Disney musical with the ingenious lyrics of the hit hip-hop Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” as well as the diverse musical stylings of Polynesian culture. I could see every song in this film be nominated for an Academy Award. Unlike previous Disney musical installments such as “Frozen,” “Moana” is actually structured as a proper musical. Previously introduced themes come back into play later on in the movie in emotionally impactful ways. “How Far I’ll Go” and “We Know the Way” could become the next “Let It Go.” Let’s just hope that it’s not overplayed to an annoying degree. My personal favorite song from the movie is “You’re Welcome,” sung by Johnson. It sounds the most like a Broadway song, and even pulls a few visuals similar to what you would see in “The Lion King” Broadway musical.
If I had one problem with the songs, it would be that there aren’t enough of them. The movie soundtrack features a few songs that never made it into the movie, and I would like to see some of them fully realized. The number of songs sort of hits a drop-off point in the second half of the film, although this is common in most movie musicals as things get more serious.
The only problems I had with “Moana” are clearly nitpicks. While the film avoids usual Disney tropes such as making the lead a princess and forcing in a romance, there are still a few cliches I dislike that found their way into “Moana.” The disapproving father trope is growing tired, and Moana follows the all-too-familiar Disney princess mindset of wanting to explore further than she’s allowed to. The latter isn’t a bad cliche in itself, but we’ve already seen that with Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Rapunzel, and Anna. It’s about time for some variety with our Disney female leads. There’s a moment at the end of the film that a consider a bit of a cop out with the progression of one of the main characters. It’s not a complete turn, but I could’ve used a little lasting consequence from the plot. Also near the end, the film does a certain cliche that I’m sick of. This particular one always brings the plot to an awkward and painful halt in whatever movie it’s in. The scene does lead to a genuinely nice moment and song, however, so it’s not as bad as it could have been. “Moana” also doesn’t have as much under the surface to say as “Zootopia” did. It’s very much just an adventure story with the required Disney moral sprinkled throughout. I don’t necessarily need a deep social commentary, but a little complexity would have elevated the movie a bit more. However, I really scraped the bottom of the barrel for those complaints, and the film is fantastic nonetheless.
Disney has been on an upward trend for its last few movies, even surpassing Pixar at times. “Moana” is proof of how much passion and detail Disney artists put into their craft, especially in recent years. Unfortunately, there’s no animated Disney movie announced for 2017 yet, but “Moana” gives me hope that, whenever the next animated film is dropped, it’ll be even better.