"Moana will stick with you long after you have left the cinema, not only thanks to its earworm-status worthy songs"
Disney does it again. After the amazing Zootropolis (aka Zootropolis in America) earlier this year Disney throws in a few coconuts, an engaging heroine, a singing Dwayne Johnson and an epic journey to save the world to bring us one of the best animated films of recent years. I am still reeling from what I have just experienced.
Catchy new songs are already auto-playing in my head, I’m almost skipping out of the cinema on my emotional high, overhearing young and old excitedly sharing their favourite bits of Moana. And there are many. It won’t surprise anyone that Disney has another hit on their plate, but I’m calling it now, this is Disney’s new Frozen. Parents, ready yourself for soundtracks being played on repeat in the little time you will get between repeat viewings of Moana once it hits home video. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and maybe do yourself a favour and leave the kids at home.
Moana takes place in a mythical Polynesia. Te Fiti’s heart has been stolen, unleashing darkness upon the world. A chosen one is said to restore the heart and defeat the darkness forever as the little children are told by Moana’s granny. Her son, the chieftain, believes everyone's safe on Motunui Island as long as they do not venture beyond the reef. When the darkness starts to affect their home, Moana can no longer abide by her father’s rules and sets out to restore Te Fiti’s heart. But first she must find demigod Maui to help her on her quest and he might not be the hero everyone thinks he is.
The opening prologue immediately reminded me of The Lord Of The Rings and the similarities did not end there; a great evil can only be stopped by returning a small shiny item to where it belongs by getting the unlikeliest of heroes to set out on a seemingly impossible quest. The Ocean chooses Moana, who is determined to undertake this mission for the sake of her people. During her adventure she doesn’t just discover the world, but she discovers her true self as well.
It’s nice to see Disney continuing its trend of having the Princess being the hero, though Moana would argue she is not a Princess (“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a Princess”, Maui tells her). It is Moana who saves the world, not Maui, though he does lend a helping hand. It was Maui who stole the heart, causing the entire mess, and he gets his redemption in the end, but it is Moana who gets to do the heroic deed.
Within the first few minutes of the film we are shown exactly who Moana is; when cute as a button baby Moana (voiced by Auli’I Cravalho) wants a shiny seashell but sees a baby turtle in need, she abandons the seashell to help the baby turtle to the water without being eaten by birds; she even gets some foliage to shield it from the sun. It is an adorable sequence, showcasing how kind and selfless Moana is. She is rewarded by the Ocean becoming her friend, edging out some space by holding back the water for Moana to get to the seashell. We are introduced to the Ocean as a character, cleverly represented by something akin to the water entity from The Abyss. Nature has been personified in Moana with the Ocean and Te Fiti taking on shape and personality, making the green message of the film even clearer. It never hits you over the head with it as Zootropolis sometimes did. Moana is more subtle in its approach.
On the other end of the spectrum we have demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), who is self-absorbed and in constant battle with his conscience, visualised by his animated tattoos. Instead of lending a helping hand, he steals Moana’s canoe first chance he gets and only ends up part of the mission due to circumstance and Moana’s perseverance.
Also along for the ride, more by accident than anything, is the sidekick and comic relief, the chicken Hei Hei. When the film started I thought the cute little piggy would function as Moana’s sidekick, but the brainless chicken was chosen instead. It leads to some funny bits and, as I’d hoped, it gets its moment to shine and validate its existence later on. I wasn’t too taken with that character as it had no character to speak of and was surprised to hear kids and adults alike seemed to love the chicken as we walked out of the cinema.
The unlikely trio make for an interesting team. Moana’s and Maui’s juxtaposed personalities lead to a lot of wisecracking and bickering, making every scene a joy to watch. The voice actors clearly had fun with their characters. And if not for all three of them, one of the best action sequences in the film wouldn't have worked as well as it did.
When the Kakamori approach, Moana turns into a kids version of Mad Max, with high speed action that has your head spinning. Against impossible odds Moana shows courage and perseverance again and again. She is the badass hero not only kids like to see. And don't call her a Princess just because she has an animal sidekick.
The animation is eye wateringly beautiful, especially everything to do with water, which is everywhere in Moana, making the Ocean a character in itself adds an additional layer to an already well-crafted and impactful film. The actors bring a lot of energy and emotion to every scene. There wasn’t a single moment the characters, the music or the animation didn’t affect me. An utterly beautiful experience from start to finish.
The icing on the cake of this already well rounded package is the music. The score and songs are utterly brilliant. The songs all serve their purpose in the narrative and move the story along. They are catchy and beautiful, all co-written by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. Auli’I Cravalho has a tremendous voice, belting out Moana’s songs with such vigor I got emotional every single time. When Johnson started singing I was readying myself to cringe. And yes, he is not a great singer, but the song suits him and turned into THE song loads of adults and kids were talking about after the film. He puts so much energy and fun into his performance that you can't help but join in. People were singing his song “You're Welcome” when leaving the cinema, and I still have it stuck in my head days later.
Speaking of leaving, make sure you stay until after the credits for an additional scene. I won't spoil it for you, but I enjoyed it and had another giggle. The music during the credits doesn't make it tough to stay behind so do yourself a favour and linger.
I could keep going, but this is getting rather lengthy. When you watch Moana you’ll notice tons of things I haven’t talked about that are worth mentioning. It’s beautiful, fun, emotional, crazy, full of action, witty dialogue, adventure and so much more. Moana will stick with you long after you have left the cinema, not only thanks to its earworm-status worthy songs. Engaging characters, beautiful visuals and catchy songs make Moana one of the best animated films of the year.