Rating out of 5:
Before I begin my review of Disney’s Moana, I have to provide a quick personal disclaimer: I’d be incapable of not liking a film sharing my mom’s name (grandma did Anthropology grad work in Tahiti) and staring a gutsy, water-savvy girl who grew up on an island in the Pacific (I did too, though it was rather colder). With that in mind, proceed to the regularly scheduled feel good family story and anthropomorphized sea life.
The film follows Moana (named after a Polynesian word for ocean, and voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) on her quest to locate the pan-Pacific cultural hero Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and return the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti, a magical stone with the power to create life. Along the way to saving her people and understanding her own place in the world, she must overcome a host of obstacles, mythological and mundane, including the fire demon Ta Ka, her father’s insular outlook, and her own self doubts.
From casting a native Hawaiian actress to play the heroine to the ubiquitous vivid and surprisingly accurate representations of ancient Polynesian sailing, Moana does many things right. Some of its best elements include a Deadpool-esque sense of self-awareness (Maui calls Moana a princess at one point–when she denies it, he quips she must be one since she has a comedic animal sidekick) and Hamilton-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s catchy vocal numbers (especially Maui’s “You’re Welcome”), which are sure to be stuck in the collective head of popular culture for some time to come. Maui’s wonderfully animated and often opinionated tattoos are worth seeing the film by themselves, as they morph and merge to illustrate flashback information and convey character development.
The movie’s few pitfalls mostly come from a misplaced sense of pluralism. The audience is presented with too many potential charismatic animal companions: the baby turtle Moana saves at the beginning is never heard from again, an adorable piglet briefly takes its place, and the writers finally settle on a moronic if strangely endearing rooster (or as one of the directors put it, “the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation”). Decide already, Disney!
On a grander scale, the film’s attempts at Polynesian mythological synthesis see the rich legendary background traditions sometimes acknowledged in motif, but more often obscured by a formulaic kids’ plot. Why not incorporate the Maori creator deities Rangi and Papa instead of Te Fiti? Hawaii’s volcano goddess Pele instead of Ta Ka, or her sister the sea deity Namaka instead of a generically personified ocean? Or the octopus monster Rogo-Tumu-Here from Tuamotu legends instead of the thieving crab Tamatoa?
Moana borrows from Frozen to some degree, but surpasses the latter’s notable ideas. Where Frozen exposes its love interest as secretly evil all along and resorts to sisterly solidarity, Moana dispenses with a romantic subplot entirely. Instead of letting the movie float along for a while without a central conflict before hurriedly shoehorning in a generic bad guy in the last 15 minutes, Moana’s consistent pace supports its rising action to the end, when the film reveals its villain was hardly what/who it seemed. In fact, ultimately there is no villain, except, in a thoroughly welcome turn… human-induced climate change.
A journey of self-discovery, strong environmentalist themes, and Lin-Manuel Miranda in one package. What’s not to like?
-Brigid Ehrmantraut ’18