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Three Views: Moana

November 23, 2016

Moana Review By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

moana-posterDirected by John Musker and Ron Clements, who helped usher in the fabled Disney Renaissance with such classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Moana is a solid entry into the studio’s oeuvre that continues their current hot streak.

Taking place in the South Pacific, the story follows Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), a restless teenager who is next in line to be chief and wants to follow in the footsteps of her explorer ancestors, but is warned against venturing off the island by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison).

But when their crops start to die due to an ancient curse, Moana disobeys her father and sets out on an ocean journey in search of demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who set the curse in motion thousands of years earlier when he stole a mystical stone.  But when she teams up with Maui, who can shape shift with the help of his magical fish hook, she has a hard time convincing the egotistical demigod to actually help her complete the journey of returning the stone to the heart of the sea, as they encounter various different dangers along the way.

I really liked Moana, but it’s also worth noting that it doesn’t quite soar as high as other modern Disney classics like Frozen, to which its already being compared, and it also lacks the sociopolitical depth that made this year’s Zootopia such a standout.  The film follows a fairly well worn story of a young hero having to prove themselves and restore order, and the humour here also sometimes skews a little too young, with lines like “there’s a blow dart in my butt cheek” squarely meant to elicit giggles from the juvenile set.  The film’s best comic relief comes in the form of Hei Hei, a delightfully dimwitted chicken who stows away on the journey, and fills in the role of a humourous sidekick quite nicely.

The soundtrack is another area where Moana doesn’t quite reach the heights of other Disney films, including 2009’s underrated The Princess and the Frog, with which it shares the same directors.  The songs here, credited to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, are decent and work well enough within the film, with recurring ballads “How Far I’ll Go” and “We Know the Way” being the clear standouts.  But the songs are also a bit inconsistent.  Maui’s big number “You’re Welcome” errs too much on the side of being an earworm, and is mainly just there to show off Lin-Manuel Miranda’s clever to a fault lyrical style.  The same can be said of the overly poppy “Shiny,” another earworm that serves as the centrepiece of an offbeat underwater sequence involving giant crab Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement).

But what sets Moana apart and makes it feel fresh is its approach to telling this story, including the presence of a strong female lead.  “You wear a dress and have an animal sidekick,” Maui tells her, “you’re a princess.”  But Moana protests.  It’s also refreshing that there isn’t even a hint of romance in the story, with the title character allowed to stand tall and be strong on her own.  The fact that the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to ensure the Polynesian culture is portrayed authentically and respectfully is also highly commendable, going on many research trips and learning from the locals.

Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho capably carries the film, doing impressive work in her first ever role, and she is matched by the always likeable Dwayne Johnson.  There are heartfelt undertones to the friendship that develops between Moana and Maui, and the film also finds emotion through Moana’s relationship with her wise grandmother (Rachel House).  The animation is beautiful throughout, with the water and starry night skies providing visually striking backdrops for the more stylized characters.

The film also has some stirring set pieces involving a bunch of creepy little coconut pirates, and a fiery lava monster that they have to go up against in the dazzling to watch climax.  Largely fashioned after their earlier classics from the Disney Renaissance, Moana is a thoroughly entertaining and beautifully animated musical adventure that also functions as a heartfelt love letter to Polynesian culture and female empowerment fable, continuing the studio’s current winning streak.

Playing before the film is Inner Workings, an amusing short that inventively shows a battle between the brain and heart inside a businessman.  The animation is appealingly stylized, and it’s got a great message about allowing yourself to enjoy life.

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Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) in Moana

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Moana Review By Erin Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Disney’s newest animated film is Moana – a story filled with wonderfully animated oceanic landscapes and an entertaining adventure.

When the film opens, we get a brief prologue in the form of a story – it is here we find out how demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of the island goddess Tahiti, and upon losing it in the sea, unleashed a dark force that is slowly wiping out life island by island, and how one day a hero will rise to find Maui and make him return the heart and restore balance among the Polynesia.  The story is told to the toddler Moana by her grandmother.  She is captivated by these tales, and as drawn to the ocean as it is to her when it reveals Tahiti’s heart to her for safekeeping.  Unfortunately her father – who is also the village chief – forbids her from being near the water, instead preferring to keep her safe on the island.

But years later, as a young teen, the stories have stuck with Moana, and she is still called to the water despite her father’s best efforts to deter her.  As the dark force starts to approach their island, Moana finally must break the rules and take a boat out to sea to find Maui, get him to return the heart of Tahiti, and restore order.  The demigod Maui however is a trickster and is reluctant to go with Moana on this task, only finally agreeing if it means he can use her boat to find his magical fishhook also lost at sea.

The film is very much about the culture of the Polynesian islands, and its strong roots in Wayfinding – the practice of navigating using only the stars.  The people of Polynesia traditionally had Wayfinding roots, and could navigate large stretches of the huge Pacific ocean to discover new islands.  As Moana discovers her true identity as a Wayfinder, we watch her blossom through realizing her innate talents and tenacity.

Moana is the true hero of this story – with Maui being more of a comic relief type character/sidekick, almost in the vein of a character like Muchu from Mulan.  At every turn, it is Moana who is given the opportunity to shine, even when she doesn’t realize herself how much she is capable of.  I really liked the character of Moana, and it is because of the way they tell her story that I liked this film so much.  She is a character refreshingly without a love interest, acts appropriate to her young age, and is voiced with an incredibly natural performance by young teen newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, (who was found through an open casting call).

Since it is a musically-driven Disney film, I’d be remiss to not mention the music.  As far as the soundtrack goes, I quite like the song ‘How Far I’ll Go,’ but this was one of the only songs that really stuck with me from the film.  Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho has a very clear voice and it suits the song very well, as well as the other parts of the film she sings.  The score by Mark Mancina is also good and serves its purpose well.

Overall, Moana is an entertaining and well-done Disney film, definitely feeling more adventure than princess, which I feel will bode well for it (and caused me to like it all the more).  We will likely see this one do big numbers at the box office, especially with families over the American Thansgiving weekend, as it is a very quality film that is sure to be a hit with audiences, especially with a new generation of kids who will be able to look to Moana as a strong, capable heroine who listens to her heart and lets it drive her to become who she was meant to be.

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Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) and Maui (Dwayne Johnson) in Moana

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Moana Review By Tony Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Moana is the latest Disney animated feature, a celebraton of Polynesian creation mythology. The Pacific islands have been inhabited for thousands of years by people who had mastered the art of wayfinding, a remarkably accurate form of navigation based on the stars and ocean currents without written maps or the technology of sextants and chronometers later used by Europeans to determine latitude and longitude respectively; let alone GPS. However, for about 1000 years, travel between islands had mostly stopped, and was then restored about 2000 years ago.

According to the story Disney assembed based on various myths, the shape shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) had stolen the heart (a small glowing blue stone) of the sea goddess but then lost it along with the magic fishhook that he wielded like a machete that gave him his powers. As a result, darkness gradually spread across the ocean and islanders were afraid to venture out beyond their reefs.

Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the heir of an island chief. Since childhood she has tried to sail away, not realizing that she was chosen by the sea to find Maui and with his help restore the heart to its rightful place. Her grandmother (Rachel House) always knew this but had long been ignored as an eccentric by the other islanders. Eventually Moana sets out on a great adventure to save her people and their wayfinding tradition.

In the past, Disney could usually be expected to hit every wrong ethnic stereotype (e.g. Pocahontas) that they could. This time, they really tried to get it right. Two of their best animation directors, Ron Clements and John Musker (apparently borrowing some of their boss John Lasseter’s Hawaiian shirts), travelled extensively around the Pacific to learn as much as they could about the culture, land and seascape of the islands. The entire voice cast proudly shares an indigenous island ancestry. The music is a happy collaboration between the Polynesian master musician Opetaia Foa’i, veteran film scorer Mark Mancina and brilliant songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda.

As a self-described “country girl” from the Big Island of Hawaii, Auli’i Cravalho is a delightful discovery that matches her character Moana in both appearance and spirit, that like Merida in Brave is a refreshing change from the typical Disney princess. The former “Rock” is also as close to his character Maui as a mortal could be. Much of the rest of the excellent voice cast are New Zealand natives, including Jemaine Clement who (as in Rio) has a lot of fun in a villainous role.

Incidentally, though the film is otherwise in beautiful CGI, Maui’s telltale tattoos are hand-drawn by one of Disney’s Old Guys. One of the songs is reprised in the credits by the Canadian singer Alessia Cara, who could be mistaken as Auli’i’s sister. Finally the name Moana (which means ocean) has been replaced in most of Europe by Vaiana, to avoid confusion with an Italian porn star.

In summary, Moana is a worthy addition to the Disney tradition of fine family animated features.

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Consensus: Beautifully animated and carried by an impressive voice performance from newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, Moana is an entertaining musical adventure and a heartfelt celebration of Polynesian culture, that provides a fine addition to Disney’s library of classic films. ★★★½ (out of 4)

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