Moana Film Review: A Music-filled Oceanic Adventure To Empower Us All

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moana-bannerAll images courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Disney’s recent track record of heroines in their animated films have strayed away from the “princess” template that the Mouse House practically invented. From Snow White to the The Little Mermaid, the female lead characters have been “saved” by a male counterpart while singing their hearts out with a cutesy animal sidekick cracking wise by her side. But as time goes by things progress (more or less) and the meaning of the “Disney princess” started to shift. Pocahontas didn’t see a “happily ever after” with John Smith and Mulan proved that women can do things just as good, if not better than men. Pixar’s Brave shattered the idea of a young woman making her life whole by marrying a man and Frozen put the power of sisterhood ahead of matrimony. This has all paved the road for MOANA, an empowering tale of a young female leader who goes above and beyond their capabilities for the greater good of her family and community — and there isn’t a love interest in sight. But there is a Demi-God and two lovable animal sidekicks.

Directed by Disney vets Ron Clements and John Musker and written by a team led by Zootopia‘s Jared Bush, Moana takes the audience to the ficitional island of Motunui, where 16-year-old Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is set to take after her father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). But ever since she was a young girl, she had a profound connection with the ocean. She is struck with wanderlust to venture off into ocean, but the people of her village — mainly her dad — urge her to not go beyond the confines of the reef surrounding their island.

Moana’s Gramma Tala (Rachel House) tells her the tale of the almighty Demi-God Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and how he stole the heart of Te Fiti which causes a darkness to spread among the islands of their regions. After Maui is confronted by the demon of earth and fire Te Ka, the heart of Te Fiti gets lost in the sea and Maui disappears.

As the darkness takes over Motunui, Moana is chosen by the sea to find the shapeshifting trickster Maui and return the heart of Te Fiti. Against the wishes of her father and encouragement of her Gramma, she sets off on a quest, as her ancestors did, in order to save her island. With that, Disney creates an enjoyable road trip pic, but more than that, an animated feature that honors the Polynesian culture and empowers self-discovery — mostly for young women.

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In certain aspects, Moana is a game changer for Disney. For one, the title character is unique in that she stands out from any other Disney heroine we have seen. Moana is kind of like the Voltron of Disney characters from the past. She has Ariel’s curiosity, Pocahontas’ moral compass, Aladdin’s hustle, Mulan’s ingenuity and risky ambition, Simba’s self-awareness, and Belle’s desire for something “more than this provincial life.” Moana has core attributes that paint her to be one of the most well-rounded in the Disney canon — and it shows throughout this finely woven story that echoes the magical storytelling of Disney classics. Cravalho as Moana drives the movie with wise-beyond-her-years confidence and an unbelievable amount of hope that will make everybody think they can accomplish anything. And the surprising absence of a love interest of any kind is huge progressive step for Disney in that it, to my knowledge, has never been done before. There isn’t one single mention of a potential suitor for Moana throughout the entire movie which is good news for forthcoming Disney heroines who vie to be independent women and bad news for Disney princes looking for work.

Disney made sure to have their bases covered when creating a movie based on the people and culture of Oceania. Not wanting to have any Hollywood whitewashing backlash (as seen in movies like Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell), Disney went to great lengths to do things right. They cast actors of Polynesian and Oceanic descent to voice the characters and even went so far to create an Oceanic Story Trust that helped them with the depiction of their culture including the intricate tattoos, the time-honored folklore of which Moana is inspired, and the music — the latter being a huge part of the story.

With Hamilton maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda at the helms of the music, it is guaranteed that the movie was in good hands. More importantly, Opetaia Foa’i from the New Zealand-based band Te Vaka, shares the musical reins with Miranda to creates a soundscape that immerses the audience in the South Pacific culture, giving the movie a robust cultural identity. The soundtrack is reminscent of the Golden Age of Disney music such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, but still remains modern, giving the emotional heft, clever storytelling charisma, and lyrical style of Hamilton.

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Laden with gorgeous, breathtaking, hair-flowing animation, Moana offers an uplifting story (something many can use right now) about a young girl who is a leader that aspires for more and for the greater good of her community and her family. She seeks change and shows that she is capable of that and more. It moves Disney’s legacy into the now and continues their record of subverting their typical princess movies. More now than ever, young girls need a heroine to inspire and encourage them to go “beyond the reef” and push boundaries to acheive goals that they never thought they could achieve. Moana is exactly that.

Rated:  PG
Running time: 113 minutes

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Dino watches too much , enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
Follow Dino on Twitter: @dinoray

Keep up with all of Dino’s reviews and stories here.

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