So welcome to a new marathon of films I’ll be reviewing. With the 12 Days of Horror hopefully returning next year for another run in October, I wanted to keep things going with more themed marathon weeks. That is where the Disney Sprint comes in. The Disney Sprint will be a thing that can come on a whim, but must always stay for 7 Days. Whenever I want to review a Disney product I’m going to always do one of these. I grew up as a Disney brat, one who was mesmerized by Fantasia and who still enjoys the Goofy Movie to this day. So I thought why not run through some Disney films on my way of talking about something like Moana. I hope you enjoy it as much as I am, so let’s tap back into that Disney magic!
Disney has been working double-time this year creating solid animated works. First we had Zootopia which is a beautiful take on the film noire crime thriller, and not to mention the surprise of Finding Dory turning out to be as good as it was. Disney is on a roll, and then they make a risky decision to have yet another Disney Princess story. Now I haven’t been biting into the more recent Disney princess stories, but one can’t deny how high they are soaring with things like Frozen becoming an international phenomena. Disney is coming back in a big way, and when we step back from the cynicism of Disney buying everything and look at their film library there are so many magical films that were a part of many childhoods. Does Moana have the same magic as the Disney classics, or will it prove the Disney formula is growing tiresome?
The story of Pacific island girl Moana (Auli’I Cravalho) is one of mythical misadventures and learning about who you are. We watch as she is entrusted with the heart of Te Fiti to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) in order to restore peace to the world. Now I came into Moana interested in such a great a warming culture in Polynesian folklore. Disney at its best, let’s not forget Pocahontas, has an ability to make very good films revolving around different cultures. Mulan is the only one that comes directly to mind, and let’s be honest Mulan is one of the most celebrated Disney films remembered today. Moana has the ability to be yet another film riddled with controversy or one that invites us into a Polynesian wonderland of beauty and entrancing visuals.
That’s not to say that it hasn’t already received criticism for its portrayal of Polynesian culture, but I think that comes with tackling any culture. It’s hard to adapt a film to entirely be 100% immersed into the culture though after the film I found myself loving and desiring to look up some of its fantastic figures like Maui. I wanted to know the significance of the elements it is portraying, and all because this film grabbed at my heart. I do in fact really enjoy Moana, the more I meditate on it I can see its flaws but this is the first time in a long time where I felt the Disney magic swept me away on a musical animated adventure.
I am one for embracing other cultures especially in film, it is why I am starting to branch out to foreign films, but I just wish that people can see the good this is doing rather than the bad sometimes. I’m hopelessly optimistic sometimes. Though it can be just as easy to see things from the other side of the argument as well, both sides are valid to some degree and make great points but I’m not here to debate those aspects as much. The characters are entrancing, even if they fall into a clockwork Disney formula that you can see their path and development early on. There is a genuine character arc to this depiction of Maui, one where it sees him as a relatable character. Everything is worked to telling the story of Moana and her learning the importance of finding out who she is, Maui is no exception. Maui is a rejection to Moana of what her parents tried to force her to be, and seeing one facet of who you are as the most important. Though she wants to be chief and protect her people, she also wants to have that adventure on the sea. Maui sees himself as nothing without his hook and that seems to be his central conflict, which openly relates to the overall message of the film finding out who you are behind your obligations.
Maui and Moana transform over the course of their journey, a girl chosen by the ocean and a demi-god who only sees merit in himself when he has powers and the ability to help others. There is this sense of self-discovery both characters go through that is woven into each point of the film. Moana is on a journey to find out where she needs to be and who she wants to be. It is beautiful Disney fare, made all the more enjoyable by the cast leading it with Cravalho and Johnson. The vocal talent alone is one of the best elements of Moana, Jemaine Clement gives a great performance as the crab Tamatoa. It feels like a little nod to the Flight of the Concords with his inclusion, and he is both creepy and fun to watch. Rachel House as Gramma Tala Waialiki, who is easily so comforting and heartfelt in every scene she is in. This film gives me that same warmth past Disney musicals give me, with a desire to learn more because of its vibrant depictions of this lush culture.
Now the interesting thing is how poignant this story is for strong female characters. I know, but Disney has a lot of strong female characters in some places (maybe I’m not going to go with a definitive answer on that though). I would argue though Moana stands as one that can shock the Disney formula. There is never a moment in the film that I remember gender ever being discussed and more that she was accepted as becoming the chief of the island without so much as a “you must marry one of those fine suitors”. Even the ending, which I will not spoil, has this really touching scene of her finally realizing so many things about herself and those around her and it blew me away. Moana is surprisingly one of the best written stories in the Disney catalogue for how it doesn’t run back to those familiar tropes that were “deconstructed” in Frozen. It breathes new life because it isn’t about the labels but rather who you are and I think that is something that everyone can gravitate towards.
Negatives for me often revolved around the generic nature of the Disney formula from time to time and the predictability of its story. The story has so many checkpoints it has to make and at times it feels rushed, but these are very brief. There is this weird reluctance to deal with Maui’s inner conflicts until the end of the film and not as effectively as it could have to make a powerful impact. So it is rushed in some moments often in crucial points yet slower to deal with important factors of character in a meaningful way. These faults don’t really detract from my enjoyment of the film, but all remedied with Alan Tudyk’s Heihei. Even if its a bit of joke, it stems from the truth. Heihei was a fun sidekick that made me smile even though you knew in full honesty that it was there to pad on the comedic relief. It works really well and I found myself and those watching with me falling in love with it.
Moana has some cracks in its armour, but it sings through it all reassuring me that the film will be alright in the long run. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina and create one of my favourite song lists from a Disney film in years. Move out of the way Frozen, Tangled, all those films, Moana is in charge now! Each song has a strong sense of personality that just doesn’t seem like assembly line whimsy, whether it be Dwayne Johnson’s “You’re Welcome” or one of my favourite Disney songs of all time with its multiple facets, “Where You Are”. You’re Welcome immerses you in the lore of Maui giving you a small crash course on his great exploits. Every song feels immersive with its visuals and lyrics, creating a strong binding feel to the entire film.
Moana is a great film, one of the best of the Disney library. It manages to visually immerse the audience in the amazing culture from the island of Motunui where Moana grew up to Lalotai, the realm of monsters. There is this distinct and memorable feeling to each scene that will stay with you after the film, more memorable than other Disney films emboldening the beauty of the Polynesian culture. Moana stands out as one of the more flawless films Disney has cranked out in a while, even if it may feel all too familiar with its plotting. Its distinct nature will certainly having me buying it day one and listening to its songs for months to come.
Disney continues to impress me with how great its films are and how well it can make characters that while adhering to the same old formula still manage to be a great time. So the start of the Disney Sprint is here and I’m not stopping until I reach the finish-line on Day 7! So have you seen Moana? What did you think about its songs and overall story and aesthetic? Please put it down in the comments below and have yourself a great day!