Review: Moana

moana
Disney’s latest is lavishly designed, beautifully animated and a lot of fun.

Set in ancient Polynesia, when a darkness begins to sicken the islands, it is up to a chieftain’s daughter named Moana to travel far over the ocean and find the demigod Maui, who was responsible for the calamity.

Whenever I go to see a Disney film I have some reservations. While the studio does some great work and with Pixar’s John Lasseter at the helm of Disney’s Animation Studios they have gone from strength to strength in recent years, I always wait for one saccharine production to come along. Moana is not that movie.
When the initial character designs were revealed there was a startling backlash from audiences across the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, arguing that the depiction of Maui as “obese” and unacceptable. The controversy managed to force Disney to pull their Maui kids costumes from production.

However!
I had a lot of fun with the film!

Many are comparing it to Frozen (although why should they; these are very different movies) and it does come down to personal taste. Frozen is the more groundbreaking story for Disney but Moana I personally enjoyed more.
Straight off the bat, Moana is a more traditional Disney story and the film never really elevates fully from the classic tropes. Moana herself is introduced as a nature-loving, free-thinking “not-a-princess” who despite her parents’ wishes to settle down and become chieftain, dreams of more. Yep, classic. Moana’s deep desire to travel the seas and her inspirational grandmother (who is easily the best character!) sets her on a dangerous voyage across the oceans.
Well, sort of dangerous.

There isn’t a great deal of threat in the film. There is scary imagery aplenty; mythical beasts are very real in this world, ranging from comical living, piratical coconuts to titans made of ash and fire! But Moana is protected and guided by the Spirit of the Ocean, which can provide any number of useful deus ex machina events.
But the film is gorgeous to behold. Ever since Pixar’s short Piper it definitely seems like animators have cracked water effects! Not only that but the film is packed with great design work and even sports numerous 2D animation, not least heroic demigod Maui’s living tattoos! Dwayne Johnson voices Maui and does a tremendous job, as does newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as Moana. Maui is larger than life and has great back-and-forths with various characters (including… a chicken??) as well as his animal transformation powers reminding me fondly of Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, one of my favourites.
The songs throughout are catchy, moving, toe-tapping and varied; from very tribal inspired to a bizarre Bowie-homage that quickly grew on me! And yes, this cynical critic was feeling a little welled up at times!

I would say there are more songs here that I enjoyed than in Frozen.
Controversial, I know.

Moana is a great little film. An enjoyable reminder that not everything has to be “reinvented” and “groundbreaking”, it can simply be fun. Moana herself walks a fine line of independent and dependent nicely, never exaggerating into one over the other. I think a lot of people would find something to enjoy in this visually arresting animation.

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