Ancient Polynesians are considered to be some of the greatest navigators in history. Without modern equipment or technology, these “Wayfinders” ventured out into the vast unknown sea and colonized various islands. But nearly two millennia ago there was a thousand year pause in their explorations. Neither why they stopped nor resumed is known for sure. Based on various cultural deities and fables, “Moana” offers one possible explanation.
Since she was a child, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) has been drawn to the sea. Her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) has forbidden their tribe from traveling beyond the reef, and has banned her from even leaving the shore! The Chief has just cause for what Moana sees as unreasonable restrictions. He recognizes the longing for adventure in her eye and fears for her safety. But when a strange sickness overtakes life on the Island, Moana ignores his rules and sets out on a journey that she hopes will save her tribe.
Inspired by a fable from her Gramma Tala (Rachel House), Moana is in search of the once legendary demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who was lost at sea after stealing the “Heart of TeFiti”, a powerful relic, from another god. Without this relic in the proper hands, darkness had slowly spread across all of Oceania.
Disney continues to top itself in one manner or another with each new animated film. Earlier this year, “Zootopia” impressed audiences with a surprisingly sharp script. Although “Moana”’s script retreads some familiar plot points (albeit good ones) its visual beauty is breathtaking. The lush world, endless ocean, and attention to every little detail is unparalleled. (Just watching Maui’s long hair reacting to different conditions is impressive.) The characters and the world they inhabit exist in a level or realism that falls below the dreaded “uncanny valley” but still miles above the cartoons other studios have been putting out.
But a movie cannot exist on great visuals alone. Thankfully the Disney team have crafted some very memorable characters. Maui starts out appearing to be a selfish, arrogant character, but as the film progresses it takes the time to delve into the events that crafted his personality and led him to steal the Heart of TeFiti. Moana, who despite what the marketing team says, makes it clear she is “NOT a Princess” is perhaps one of the more admirable young female Disney characters in recent years. Looking back, many of these characters set out on their learning experience by some type of wrongdoing. A major mistake, betrayal, or misunderstanding. Sure, Moana is directly defying the wishes of her father, but it’s an action she takes for the benefit of her tribe, and only when no other options remain.
There’s been a lot of excitement over “Hamilton” composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s involvement with the soundtrack. Unfortunately, with a couple exceptions, the English songs pale in comparison to the rousing Polynesian anthems. They aren’t bad at all, they just feel rather pedestrian in comparison to the cultural music. That being said, hearing The Rock belt out his hilarious signature song “You’re Welcome” is worth the price of admission alone.
For more on the work that went into this beautiful film,
check out our interview with Disney Character Animator Darrin Butters.