Disney’s Moana is the latest in a long string of successes that the house built by a mouse has had since 2010’s Tangled (although I would argue The Princess & The Frog). Films like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6 are all amazing, but I found Moana to easily be not only the best film of Disney’s Revival era, but one that stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the best animated films of all time.
I know that seems like a bold and almost presumptuous statement, but Moana has all the makings that I find contribute to a master class animated film. Countless Disney productions have had stunning visuals, catchy tunes and lovable characters, and while Moana doesn’t really do anything new or groundbreaking, it just proves that stories don’t need to constantly innovate in order to be great.
Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur is a film that gets a pretty bad rap in my opinion. I’ll concede that’s it’s story isn’t amazing, but The Good Dinosaur is a technical marvel. As a huge fan of animation, seeing how realistically Pixar was able to render that film’s foliage and sweeping landscapes blew me away, and Moana may even surpass it in this regard.
Moana’s opening scenes depict life on a tropical island, complete with plenty of flowers, trees, beach sand and of course, water. I can definitely say that I’ve never seen computer generated water like this before, and I genuinely believe that if I didn’t already know I was watching an animated film, I’d think it was real water.
But the water isn’t just impressive because it looks realistic, rather, it’s the way Disney handled the animation. The ocean is an actual character in the story of Moana, and it was really cool seeing how it would bend and shape itself for different situations. My favorite part was the way it shaped itself around an infant Moana like a makeshift aquarium.
One thing that I loved about Moana that I don’t usually find is the case with Disney films, was the action. Whether it was death defying feats of naval navigation, or a titanic fight against a giant lava monster, Moana featured a ton of dynamic shots and action scenes. Moana’s outfit was even designed with the action in mind, as her dress was specifically made to not get in her way as she runs and jumps.
Music is another important half of Moana’s Polynesian aesthetic, and in typical Disney fashion, they attempted to be as authentic as possible. Disney brought in musicians and singers from various Polynesian regions, as well as musicians from Broadway to give the score a tinge of pop music.
The composition team noted that island music is very “percussive and vocally heavy”, so they made sure that this was not only true of the film’s score, but of the film’s story as well. Moana frequently depicts the islanders playing traditional drums, and Maui, one of the film’s leads, even has his own special dance that involves him using his large chest as a drum, accompanied by a heavy vocal chant.
Moana also has some of the best vocal tracks I’ve ever heard in a Disney movie. My absolute favorite is Maui’s song, “You’re Welcome”, but I also enjoy others such as Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” and “Shiny”, sung by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame.
Let’s talk about the story. At its core, Moana is the story of a young girl that wants to see the world beyond her island. Ever since she was an infant, Moana has been deeply infatuated with the ocean and what lies beyond her home, but the ocean tides are a dangerous place, so her people have long forbid travel across them. As such, Moana has made frequent attempts to set sail for adventure, only to be stopped by her father, the island’s reigning chief.
But when an ancient island prophecy comes to pass, Moana is chosen as the one that will save her people. She is tasked with finding the demigod Maui, and making him assist her in purging the darkness from the islands.
Along the way, Moana learns a bit about her people’s history. One of the story’s central characters is Moana’s grandmother, Tala. Her stories and passion for the ocean connect Moana to her their true heritage, that of voyagers. With this knowledge in hand, Moana sets course to find Maui.
I’ll get straight to the point by saying Maui is an amazing character. He’s voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Maui was literally made to be played by him. He’s incredibly full of himself, but it makes him pretty charming overall. However, beneath the muscles and bravado, Maui has a surprising amount of depth and vulnerability. His parents discarded him when he was an infant, and as such, he grew up seeking the love and affection of others, no matter what he had to do.
It’s a bit early to tell, but Moana may end up being one of my favorite Disney heroines, and there are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, I adore the energy that she exudes. I can feel the passion she has for everything she does, and conversely, the moments where she was upset or downtrodden really resonated with me.
Moana’s goal is somewhat similar to another Disney Princess, namely, Ariel of The Little Mermaid. Both girls had dreams of visiting the outside world, but certain circumstances kept them from doing so. And as soon as an opportunity to leave presents itself, the girls take them without much hesitation. The main difference here is the execution.
We get to see Moana’s dream develop from a time before she could barely even walk, and this all culminates in her embarking on a journey to save her islands from rotting away, and the look on her face as she finally sets sail was an absolute treat.
We live in a time where female representation is extremely relevant, and while I personally prefer to look at characters beyond their gender, I’d be foolish to ignore that Moana is an amazing female role model. She’s the type of girl that I hope my future daughters will take after.
Moana has typical traits like bravery, independence and resourcefulness, but it’s the way that the film portrays these elements of her character that makes her shine. Does she ask her muscular male companion to rescue her pet chicken from a group of coconut pirates? No, she grabs an oar and proceed to do the job herself. When this same companion is cornered by a giant crab with a penchant for gold, does she cower on the sidelines? No, she makes use of her quick thinking abilities, and gets both herself and Maui out of harm’s way.
This theme of independence in Moana is consistent throughout the entire film. It even manifests in smaller ways, such as wanting to learn how to navigate the ocean, instead of having to rely on somebody else. By the end of the film, Moana was a strong, island wayfinder, and she was able to lead her people on a new journey of discovery.
I’m not knowledgeable enough on Polynesian culture to know how accurately Moana portrays it, but I was definitely enthralled by how well they at least appeared to capture it. Maui is actually a real character from ancient Polynesian stories, and the film’s various outfits were created after studying various forms of clothing and jewelry across multiple islands.
The attention to culture even extended to Moana’s voice cast. All of the principal characters, as well as the majority of the supporting cast was voiced by somebody of Polynesian descent. Moana herself was voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, a young girl who was roughly the same age as her character during the film’s production.
As is standard practice for Disney, the production house sponsored research trips to tropical locales such as Fiji and Samoa in order for the animation team to have realistic points of reference. Special mention was also paid to the various tattoos that adorn the islander’s bodies, particularly Maui. He did not have his tattoos done as a part of the island’s tradition, rather, his are earned as the result of accomplishing different feats. As a fun little bonus, Maui’s tattoos are the only form of traditional 2d animation in the film, and also the source of it’s funniest jokes.
Moana is an absolute masterpiece. In a time where Disney is making some of the most well-received films in their entire history, Moana stood out to me as being above even these other amazing stories. I enjoyed every second of my time with Moana, and I truly believe it is right up there with the best animated films of all time.