Moana follows the adventures of Moana, the future chief of a small island somewhere in the Pacific. She finds that she’s desperate to journey out to the sea but her father forbids her. However, when the island’s crops begin to die and the fish flee due to a curse, she makes it her mission to find the demi-god Maui and return the Heart of Tefiti to its rightful owner. As it is a Disney movie, wacky hijinks and touching moments ensue as they go forth on their quest.
There’s a lot here to love, but likely the biggest and best thing people are going to gravitate to is the performances. Dwayne The Rock Johnson is like walking, talking charisma so it’s no surprise that his performance is incredibly enjoyable. Perhaps more surprising is Auli’i Cravalho as Moana, who not only sings with the passion and strength but also really brings Moana to life through excellent voice acting. If there is a heart to this movie, it is her above the rest of the cast. Rachel House as Moana’s wacky grandmother is a gem of a performance, both sweet and genuinely caring as well as being bitingly funny. I have to commend Disney for casting actors of Polynesian and Maori descent for the vast majority of the roles, and actually incorporating them into the music and choir aspects as well.
The movie is not short on the humor, even if the overall plot steers to the dramatic. From Heinei, the ridiculous chicken made of stock noises, to the ocean refusing to let Maui be a jerk to even just the visual gags. It never relies on pop culture humor to move the plot along (except for one obnoxious Twitter joke that will be so dated by the next decade) but manages to feel fresh. However, when the plot needs to settle down and have a serious moment, it transitions beautifully and without missing a beat.
The music is gorgeous. Composed by Hamilton lyricist and all around genius Lin-Manuel Miranda, the songs have solid rhythms, smart and moving lyrics, and a lot of flavor. If Frozen had the one song you couldn’t stop singing, the whole Moana soundtrack is like that. The one exception is perhaps the villain song “Shiny” which is done in this glam rock style that stands out from the other songs in the worst way. The style doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the Polynesian based music, so it just feels like a disjointed piece in an otherwise carefully crafted machine. All of the actors sing beautifully, with Cravalho delivering emotive and stirring performances, and with The Rock having a solid set of pipes as well.
The crowning jewel of the movie has to be the animation. From the textures on the hair and water, to the character design, right down to the movements of walks, the animation makes the world feel dynamic and warm. Disney has been really pushing the boundaries of its computer animation, and this feels more realistic without crossing over into the uncanny valley. It’s a movie that moves with a gorgeous fluidity, that has more of a physicality than Frozen. The mystical aspects, like Te Fiti and Te Ka, Grandma’s stingray spirit, and more all fit the aesthetic but keep this sense of grandeur and otherworldliness. It is, in my opinion, the best looking Disney movie thus far released and I think it will be for a good long time.
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If there's one word to describe Moana, it would be "masterful." Every aspect of the film has a ton of thought and detail put into it, and it makes the whole production shine, finally battling the juggernaut that is Frozen in popularity. The movie soars so high, it's hard not to be inspired and energized by it.