Moana Review: A Gorgeous Rehash of Disney Classics

Photo Credit:

For its first half, Moana captures the spirit of classic Disney films, occasionally feeling like a grab-bag of The Little MermaidThe Lion King, and others. It’s got great characters, hysterical animal sidekicks, songs you’ll be singing into next week, dead relatives, and stunning animation. The studio’s high watermark is reached for a while, and this infectious achievement of endless possibility and adventure goes on to keep the film afloat for the second half when things start to feel a little more routine.

Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is daughter of the chief (Temuera Morrison) of their island, destined to take his place when the time is right. They live in a place that there’s no reason to leave. Coconuts come from the trees, fish come from the reef, and life goes on in an unfaltering cycle. No matter how much Moana tries to convince herself she’s fine where she is, she’s hungry for more. Her grandmother (Rachel House), also the island kook, tells tales of a demigod who stole an ancient artifact from the god that created the islands and the life that lives on them. Legend says that until the artifact is returned, darkness will pillage the islands, decimating their crops and fish supplies one by one. As this folklore starts to come true, with the assistance of song, Moana sets sail to find Maui (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson) to return the artifact once and for all.

The best thing about this enchanting animated tale is Moana herself. Hardly a princess, though hardly a warrior, our lead is a refreshing protagonist built on her sheer strength of will. Moana isn’t a female written as a man, she’s entirely feminine, but still written as independent and strong. She’s a fully realized human being, aside from being a teenager, full of desires, flaws, and hope. It’s only when the film pairs her with Maui that the Disney formula starts to feel overused. Moana is never secondary to the demigod, but their shared dynamic doesn’t quite live up to the swelling acts of courage she displays in the first act.

Still, there’s no denying that Moana isn’t a joy to look at. Right from the opening scene, we’re treated to maybe the best animation of water ever put on the screen, with it not-so-figuratively becoming a character of its own. But even in less magical moments, the vibrant colors pop while the world appears completely lived in. Moana raises the bar here, pushing animation technology to the limits of what we know it can do, making the film an unquestionable technical achievement.

Luckily, that’s not all it is. Disney may have scored a little higher earlier this year for the more-original Zootopia, but Moana is hardly a misfire. Combined, they make for the best year in Disney animation (not including Pixar) since the turn of the century. Moana will, for at least a time, be iconic. It likely doesn’t have the narrative chops to stay that way, but it will hopefully inspire other up-and-coming animators to make a more lasting mark. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *