Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Moana (also known as Vaiana in some countries) is a CG adventure fantasy film released in 2016, and it is the 56th feature-length animated film produced by Disney. Co-written and directed by long-time Disney collaborators Ron Clements and John Musker, the film is set in ancient Polynesia and follows the daughter of a tribal chief on an epic quest to restore her island with the help of a mischievous demigod. The film stars the voice talents of a debuting Auliʻi Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jermaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger and Alan Tudyk. Featuring songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i and composer Mark Mancina, the film was released to a positive reception from critics who praised the film's animation and voice performances. The film went on to earn more than $645 million worldwide and achieved two nominations at the Academy Awards, although it was overshadowed by the runaway success of another Disney film released that year, Zootopia. A spin-off TV series is currently in development at the time of writing, due for release in 2023.
What's It About?
On the Polynesian island of Motunui, the inhabitants worship the ancient goddess Te Fiti who birthed all life and land in the ocean thanks to a carved green gem, her heart and source of her power. Unfortunately, the demigod Maui manages to steal her heart in order to give humans the power of creation. In the aftermath, Te Fiti crumbles into dust while Maui just about escapes but loses the heartstone and his magical fishhook, one that enables Maui to shapeshift, beneath the waves and are lost forever. As Te Fiti fades from existence, a powerful blight begins to spread across the region.
A thousand years later, Moana - the daughter of the tribal chief on Motunui - is chosen by the ocean itself to return Te Fiti's heart back to the goddess. When she grows up, Moana is torn between her childhood memory of interacting with the sea and her duties to her people. However, the island is soon hit by the blight which ruins their crops and relocates the fish they rely upon. Guided by her grandmother Tala, Moana ignores the pleas of her father to remain on the island and sets off to sea in search of Maui - the only one who can reunite the heartstone with the goddess.
What's to Like?
Expectations were high for this film, following in the hugely successful footsteps of Zootopia and the ever-popular juggernaut Frozen. Thankfully, there is an argument to suggest that Moana might be the best of the lot. For starters, the film's animation is just fabulous as it is awash with lush vistas of tropical islands, surging sea swells and fiery demons belching smoke into the sky. And it looks remarkably realistic - Frozen looks positively basic compared to this, released just three years later. Characters, on the other hand, do not look realistic but they do move as though they were performance-captured and they react well in their environments, getting soaked through when wet (which is often) or their hair billowing in the wind. And of course, the film is colourful and bright in the Disney tradition and filled with Easter eggs and references that nerds like me enjoy.
Speaking of Disney traditions, the film opens with a veritable avalanche of songs so much so that I feared the film was actually an opera! Thankfully, the warbling takes a back seat in the second half of the film but the songs are in the film are decent enough. Alas, nothing as memorable as the songs from Frozen though. Nevertheless, the film does manage some decent performances from its cast. Johnson is great as Maui, injecting the film with a chaotic sense of fun as well as helping explain the film's mythology to us viewers unused to Polynesian lore. Cravalho makes a good first impression as this latest addition to Disney's ever-growing list of marketable female heroines and Clement is good value as Tamatoa, the vain and villainous crab monster that battles our heroes.
Tamatoa is also an example of the supporting cast (which are surprisingly few in number) maximising their time on screen. Tudyk's Heihei, an incredibly stupid rooster that somehow accompanies Moana on her journey, is very funny despite having no dialogue besides clucking and the occasional shriek - in fact, I'm surprised he hasn't appeared in a short film on his own yet. The film is great fun and while it sticks closely to the Disney formula, it is different enough and spectacularly interesting to become better than it has any right to be.
- The film has a number of Easter eggs or references to other Disney films hidden in plain sight on screen. In addition to the usual 'Hidden Mickey', the genie's lamp from Aladdin can be seen while the magic carpet can be seen - albeit in a Polynesian style - during the film's opening number. Ariel's sidekick Flounder from The Little Mermaid pops up during the song "You're Welcome" while Sven the reindeer from Frozen appears in a brief cameo as Maui tries to shapeshift. Both Aladdin and The Little Mermaid were both directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.
- The film also contains a couple of nods to Johnson's previous career as WWE professional wrestler The Rock. Maui raises his eyebrow in a manner similar to Johnson's signature pose while Tua, Moana's father, has tribal tattoos based on Samoan designs worn by Johnson and Johnson's grandfather, fellow pro wrestler 'High Chief' Peter Maivia.
- The scene depicting the naval battle between the Kakamora and Moana's craft is an intentional homage to Mad Max: Fury Road. The coconut pirates even use a similar strategy of harpooning the enemy vessel in order to board, as used by Immortan Joe's forces.
What's Not to Like?
I do have one or two minor niggles but thankfully, nothing severe enough for me to downgrade the five-star rating. I've mentioned that the songs aren't as catchy as those in Frozen and actually feel incredibly similar in places. The film's narrative also feels far too predictable and familiar, a strong-willed female protagonist overcoming her own insecurities and discovering her true self in order to triumph. If you've ever seen Frozen or Brave or Zootopia or Inside Out then you shouldn't be too surprised at the film's overall structure. I'm also wondering why the choice was made for the animation to be realistic in the background and cartoony for characters. As entertaining as Maui is as a character, he isn't particularly pretty to look at and the same can kinda be said for Moana herself - facially, she looks very similar to other Disney 'princesses' like Elsa or Merida. I sincerely hope that Moana isn't the start of some sort of ethnic 'box ticking', covering communities previously ignored in mass media and given how the most recent releases have been based in China (Raya And The Last Dragon) and Latin America (Encanto), you can consider me worried.
The film's story may be based in unfamiliar surroundings but it is essentially the same as many other animated movies. But is this enough to scupper the film? Not really - this is possibly the best looking animated film I have ever seen and with some decent slapstick comedy, good songs and memorable characters, there isn't any real reason not to recommend Moana. I don't think it's as good as Frozen but it is just as good as Zootopia, which I have no hesitation in recommending for family viewings. Maybe if it wasn't released so closely to the competition, those box office figures would have been even higher. Disney are on a real high at the moment, pushing Pixar every step of the way and this is the latest example of the traditional kings of animation reclaiming their crown using the latest technology.
Should I Watch It?
Disney manage to keep their good run of form going with this hugely enjoyable fantasy adventure, blending traditional and CG animation to incredible effect to create a film that will entertain viewers of all ages with ease. With some good songs, great characters and goofy slapstick comedy, the film is a winner however you look at it. And while it might not have enjoyed the popularity of some other Disney films lately, that may even be a good thing for parents sick of listening to kids singing 'Let It Go'.
Great For: viewers young and old, viewers of Polynesian heritage, pushing the technical boundaries for CG animation
Not So Great For: long-time Disney fans, cynics, roosters or chickens
What Else Should I Watch?
The biggest competition for Disney at the moment seems to be either themselves or their stablemates Pixar. Both Frozen and Zootopia made more than a billion at the global box office, becoming animation giants that thoroughly deserved their earnings. Frozen is so much more than that bloody song, a film that doesn't rely on typical fairy-tale tropes and delivers a heart-warming story of sisterhood and familial love. It may be a gay parable to some, which is fine, and there is some decent comic support from goofy snowman Olaf - a character who still manages to pop up in his own material almost ten years later. Zootopia, on the other hand, is a cuddly crime comedy featuring mismatched partners trying to unravel a murderous conspiracy. It's a huge amount of fun that pokes fun at both the buddy-cop genre and other Disney films as well despite featuring anthropomorphic talking animals.
It's unfortunate for other films that Disney's CG animated movies have regularly hit such highs, meaning that otherwise decent films are sometimes overshadowed or overlooked. Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It-Ralph are perfectly fine, albeit rather technical outings compared to more fantasy-fare like Moana. Big Hero 6 is an unusual film, depicting a friendship between a curious robot and a young science prodigy in a technologically advanced metropolis that borrows a more anime feel to its aesthetic. Wreck-It-Ralph follows a disgruntled 8-bit video game character as he breaks free from his arcade machine origins and discovers a world of online gaming, realistic shooters and a candy-coloured 'glitch' sidekick who quickly rubs him up the wrong way. Both are entertaining and fun but are ultimately in the shadows of their more successful stablemates.
Main Cast (voice performance)
|Directors||Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall (co-director) & Chris Williams (co-director)|
Release Date (UK)
2nd December, 2016
Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Musical
Academy Award Nominations
Best Animated Feature, Best Original Song
© 2022 Benjamin Cox