The expectations for this one were through the roof, after Disney was reinvigorated with Frozen. Could Moana repeat that sort of magic?
We meet a young girl named Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) who is the chief’s daughter on an ancient Polynesian island. She’s in line to become chief herself but her heart is drawn to the ocean, though an ancient story keeps her people close. See, a demigod named Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) stole an artifact a long time ago and that ripple of events is still being felt and Moana knows that she must return this artifact to its rightful place but she needs Maui to help her do it.
This journey has plenty of antagonists, including a giant lava demon, a pirate crew of monsters wearing coconuts, and an obsessive hermit crab (Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords).
The first thing that’s going to jump out is the visuals. This animation is top-notch, most notably the water and lava effects, which were both incredible. The character models are also quite fantastic, with incredible attention to detail that makes these characters seem almost life-like.
Before they rendered these effects, there is some great effort made to the actual design of these characters. Maui has living tattoos that are characters unto themselves. The ocean is a major character as well, having a personality all of its own. The big “monsters” of the movie are interesting as well, culminating with a lava demon in the climax that is thrilling to watch. Kids will likely enjoy the coconut pirates that appear for a scene.
People will also hopefully be pleased with the movie’s portrayal of this Polynesian island. It’s unfortunately a culture not often shown in mainstream media and here it’s treated with respect and honor, though as a haole (or an outsider), I’d love to hear folks’ opinions with Polynesian roots.
What doesn’t work?
This movie isn’t perfect, though it is indeed great.
The music is fine. The hit single How Far I’ll Go is catchy and is used to great effect in the film, but the other tracks are lackluster. The Rock kind of does this sing-talking schtick and Jemaine Clement gets a track called Shiny that I couldn’t wait to be over. It’s a very mixed bag.
I also didn’t feel what I was expecting to. Part of this, I blame on the theater. It was packed with distractions (mostly a crying kid, a vocally inquisitive kid, a girl on a cell phone, and annoying teens that already knew the music so were singing along). So I couldn’t really immerse myself the way I normally do in films like these. But even if I could… I still question if this movie would’ve punched me in the gut the way that other Disney films are known for. It had a great story but the emotional resonance was lacking when the credits started rolling.
Moana is a great movie. There are a few missteps though that will keep it from a perfect score. Mostly, the music didn’t always work. Lead actress and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho was perfect in all her songs but the other tracks weren’t as successful or memorable. This movie stands out in its visuals, including some fantastic creature and character design that is implemented perfectly, with top notch visual effects. Kids and parents should both find plenty to love here, but in the entire spectrum of films as a whole, this movie wasn’t the touchdown that previous Disney movies have been.