Moana, strong daughter of her village's chief, prepares to ascend to her father's position while fighting the urge to journey beyond the shoreline. When the once plentiful resources of her village begin to dry up, Moana begins a journey which will make her a savior or crush her spirit. Ron Clements and John Musker direct Moana, with the screenplay written by Jared Bush, and stars Auli'i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson.
I love Moana (Auli'i Cravalho). Moana is a good flick, but Moana is stronger than the typical Disney musical trappings surrounding her. She's in-line to assume the position of Chief when her father is ready to move on, sits in rapt attention as a child at her grandmother Tala's (Rachel House) monstrous stories, and refuses to take guff from anyone. When Moana is great, it's because of those moments where Moana is asserting her power and directors Ron Clements and John Musker follow suit, showcasing the diverse joy of her Polynesian life.
When Moana isn't so great, it's because Clements and Musker slide back into traditional Disney trappings. I'm thinking of the songs about a community in love with itself, inexplicably in English, or the wheel-spinning of a woman tied down to her island when all she wants to do is get out there and explore. The development of the, "We've gotta get out of this place," Disney heroine is a relatively recent invention with Ariel and Belle leading the way to Rapunzel and Elsa. The three decades or so of their storylines have left the opening scenes of Moana feeling a bit stale in contrast to the gorgeously unique surroundings.
What's sad is how Moana hints at a different and more courageous approach by opening with a unique painted sand animation style before cutting to the now-normal CGI figures. Flashes of this animation brighten up spots of Moana, most notably with the tattoos of Maui (Dwayne Johnson). At first the tattoo of the little man on Maui's body is a silent ink-blot of an angel, pushing at Maui's body and expressing disapproval when Maui shirks his gifts in the hopes of getting away from Moana. This leads to a wondrous sequence where the tattoos fill the entire screen to tell stories on Maui's skin. Clements and Musker let the bodies of the Polynesian people speak for themselves before, again to my disappointment, returning to the usual pristine CGI.
This division between the now-conventional and the flashes of brilliance in embracing different cultures is deeply felt in the music. Though he seems to be a lovely person, I don't really "get" Lin-Manuel Miranda, and his contributions to the songs are a shade on the mediocre side. What sells his songs are the performance, with Johnson and surprise entrant Jemaine Clement getting the opportunity to praise themselves via hypermasculinity and delicious narcissism. Clement's scene serves as one of the great visual wonders of Moana as well, voicing a treasure-clad gigantic coconut crab alternating between glistening in his golden splendor and throwing literal shade of purple on his skin when threatening Moana.
Despite these disappointments, there's plenty of beauty in Moana, and when the songs click with the images they achieve great power. This, fittingly, is with songs written or cowritten by Opetaia Foa'i of the South Pacific Fusion band Te Vaka. One of the ongoing visual motifs has to do with nature violently colliding against itself. Moana, seeking to understand the history of her people, has this nature thrown back at her when she plays drums in the middle of a hollow cave. The visual of the fires coming alive with the drums is good, but the follow-up of her getting a vision of her ancestors smashing into the sea with boundless optimism is spectacular. I didn't need to understand what her ancestors were saying, the energy of their performance alongside the drums and image of the rafts crashing into the ocean were more than enough.
Even as I veered wildly from "eh" to "my god this is gorgeous", Cravalho never faltered as Moana. She is deeply passionate about life, bristling with confidence no matter the danger, and is able to go one-on-one with the great one (Mr. Johnson, of course) in trading barbs. The latter point can and should not be diminished. Johnson has proven himself one of the most bankable Hollywood stars with his endless vault of charisma. That Cravalho meets and surpasses him in her vocal work is a testament to how far her talent has already taken her.
My favorite twist in a movie that needed to embrace more of them was in the animal sidekicks. They evolve by devolving, behaving more like the impulsive animals they are instead of smug or overly intelligent comrades. To this point, I don't recall if the chicken accompanying Moana does anything "useful" in the entire movie, but I'll be damned if I didn't laugh frequently at the chicken's oblivious pecking in the face of danger and frequent cawing in the middle of the ocean. The devolution of the "villain" is another welcome change. Gone are the vain and political motivations of recent Disney villains. In their place stands a sad, justifiably enraged, and all too fitting force of nature as tragic as she is powerful.
Moana shines when embracing the power of women and Polynesian culture. It does not condescend, giving Tala a sexiness and confidence we're not used to seeing from older characters as she drifts her hips and body along with the ocean. Moana isn't there, not yet, but the waves she commands as Moana fades to a close hint at the power she will command.
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements.
Screenplay written by Jared Bush.
Starring Auli'i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson.