For the full Movie Bears Podcast review of ‘Moana,’ check out the video below or read on for our mini-review!
When it comes to animated features, the name ‘Disney’ is often synonymous with quality, and rightly so when you look at the impressive catalogue the company has produced over the decades. As the 56th feature to come from Walt Disney Animation Studios, ‘Moana’ carries forth the same legacy of quality and entertainment, making it a must-watch this holiday season for fans both young and old.
The story follows Moana, the brave (and stubborn) daughter of a Polynesian chieftain who is chosen by the ocean to save her people after a mysterious blight strikes her island. She embarks on a journey to find the demigod Maui so that the pair can return a life-giving gem to its rightful place and restore order to the land. As with most Disney features, the animation in ‘Moana’ is of expert quality. From character design to water effects to virtual camera placement, ‘Moana’ feels meticulously crafted, an even more impressive feat when considering the fact that a team of 90 animators had to work in unison to produce this stunningly beautiful work.
The story beats found within ‘Moana’ feel familiar, cribbing many of the common elements of the hero’s journey found in most Disney works. In these plot beats, ‘Moana’ does not veer too far from the beaten path. Where it blazes new and refreshing territory is in the execution; we seldom see female persons of color taking the helm in these types of adventures, and when we do, their race and gender become obstacles and points of contention. Here, Moana’s capabilities are never questioned due to her gender. Instead, the conflict between her and her overbearing father come from their leadership approaches; he subscribes to an isolationist mentality while Moana wants to lead her people beyond the confines of their island.
‘Moana’ is very much a two-hander for much of the film, propelled by the talents of Dwayne Johnson’s (Maui) charismatic bravado and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho’s sincerity and tenacity. The pair possess a palpable degree of chemistry which makes their bickering – and subsequent bonding – all the more entertaining.
A welcome addition to the development team for ‘Moana’ is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the playwright best known for creating the hit Broadway musical ‘Hamilton.’ He joins musicians Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina in creating one of the most lush and memorable soundtracks of the year, featuring songs in both English and in the Tokelauan language. Miranda succeeds in bringing his unique voice and stylings to the project, while also playing within the boundaries set by Disney, creating songs which feel both familiar and new. Of particular note is ‘How Far I’ll Go,’ an earworm of a track that speaks to Moana’s yearnings in a way that feels like the second-coming of the ‘Frozen’ track ‘Let It Go.’
Any other year, ‘Moana’ would be lauded as merely another solid Disney feature. However, there’s something about its theme of coming to terms with one’s cultural identity and of embracing an expansionist worldview that feels particularly timely today. ‘Moana’ teaches us that we can find harmony with who we are while seeking to expand our horizons, and it does so with beauty, grace, and with songs that will be pleasantly stuck in our heads for months to come.
Written by Will Lindus, Movie Bears Podcast