Movie Review: Moana

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The daughter of a village chief must break her father’s laws and travel out into the open ocean to save her island and her people.

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Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, Chris Williams, 2016

As the daughter of the Chief, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) has a lot of responsibilities on her young shoulders. She’s expected to take over the title and make her family proud, but Moana finds herself constantly drawn to the sea. Unfortunately for Moana, her father Tui (Temuera Morrison) forbids his people from journeying beyond the reef that surrounds their island. However, Moana’s grandmother Tala (Rachel House) shows her granddaughter that the island is dying from a plague unleashed a thousand years ago, spreading from island to island. Ever since the demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) stole the heart of the god Te Fiti, mother of all the islands, and unleashed the demon Te Ka, a darkness has spread, killing the islands. Moana sets off with her deeply stupid chicken Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk) to find Maui and force him to return the heart of Te Fiti, encountering obstacles along the way.

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Moana is fine. It looks nice, the songs are nice, it has some funny moments. Rachel House kills it as Moana’s eccentric grandmother, with Maui providing plenty of laughs and Alan Tudyk’s chicken Hei Hei being the comic relief. Kids love that chicken. The film really is animated gorgeously, with the Realm of Monsters a neon highlight, and some gorgeous and varied character design. The song highlights are either humorous – Maui’s You’re Welcome is the stand-out number, but Jemaine Clement performing Shiny as a giant crab is also a gem – or emotional, with many of the songs improving upon their less showy but more heartfelt reprises. Here’s to hoping Lin-Manuel Miranda gets his Oscar to complete EGOT status. What Moana lacks, more than anything else, is focus. The mish mash of various Polynesian cultures leads to a somewhat blurry vision of the mythology and culture of Moana’s people that isn’t internally consistent. The plot is simplistic, a pretty standard hero’s journey, with Moana setting out and coming across challenges that she must overcome in order to make her way to the Final Boss Battle. She beats exactly three bad guys in three scenes that are pretty reminiscent of last year’s Kubo and the Two Strings. The final battle against the monstrous Te’ka features a similarly neat twist, but its story relevance seems tenuous at best – it really mirrors Maui’s storyline rather than Moana’s, which highlights a major flaw.

One of the most fundamental problems with this movie is that Moana is an idol, rather than a character. She has no flaws, she makes no mistakes. In trying to make her everything to everyone, the filmmakers have made her empty. Her effortless skill at being the chief AND an adventurer AND at almost anything else she attempts make her hard to identify with. Auli’i Cravalho brings spunk to the vocals, and she’s animated beautifully, but Moana’s way too good at everything to ever feel like she’s really in danger. As cute as toddler Moana is, her being “chosen” by the sea so early means that she’s constantly reliant on its help, with the sea providing a deus ex machina whenever Moana needs help. Maui comes off as the better character, having an arc and a journey – ostensibly he’s an antagonist for most of the movie, and he’s technically more powerful than Moana, but he also has more vulnerability and more to learn. He has to make sacrifices and change as a person, whereas Moana’s entire journey is just…believing in herself? Which she basically already did? I’m honestly still not sure what she learned here. I was unsurprised to learn that Taika Waititi’s original script was about Maui and didn’t feature Moana at all – he’s a much better character overall. As energetic and fun as the movie is, it can’t overcome these flaws, making it a lesser entry into the recent Disney 3D canon.

Moana on IMDb

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