MOANA – a review by JJ Heaton

Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson (Central Intelligence), Rachel House (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Temuera Morrison (Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones), Jemaine Clement (What We Do in the Shadows), Nicole Scherzinger (Men in Black 3), Alan Tudyk (Frozen)

Directors: Ron Clements & John Musker (The Little Mermaid)

Writer: Jared Bush (Zootopia)

Runtime: 1 hour 43 minutes

Release Date: 23 November (US), 2 December (UK)

Moana represents a lot for Walt Disney Animation Studios. It’s another step for them in their quest to revamp their Disney Princess brand for a progressive age, it’s another chance for them to step outside Western folklore in a way they haven’t tried since Mulan, and it sees long-time veteran Disney directors Ron Clements & John Musker finally step into the realm of computer animation. In a lot of ways, Moana succeeds in those lofty ambitions and does stand out from the pack of traditional Disney films, but on a mechanical level it doesn’t quite do enough to make it the instant classic it is attempting to be.

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Moana does a lot aesthetically to set the film apart from previous Disney tales, but a lot of the core components are still there. You’ve got the strong and outspoken protagonist wanting to leave the path she has been set on for something “more”, some tragic event forces her to do so but she lacks all the necessary skills, she is paired with a kooky side character whom she learns to get along with, and the two help each other get over their issues and become heroes. It’s all done with a lot of heart and passion, but it’s hard not to feel like we’ve seen this all before but in a different coat of paint. They’ve eschewed a lot of other elements like the love interest and the tragic childhood for the better, but then they’ve also avoided having a compelling main villain and an original message to its detriment.

The film is paced well but feels structurally askew with a first act that drags and a third that feels disappointingly brief (which is thankfully held together by an incredibly strong middle), but it feels very similar to Big Hero 6 in the sense it makes me wonder if they got near the end of the movie and had to rush things to fit within a 100 minute runtime. I’ll give it the final climax reveal and its resolution compliments for playing against expectations, but again it feels underdeveloped and it ultimately makes what should have been the film’s emotional denouement lack the punch it so clearly wants to deliver. I’m glad to see Disney continue to be self-aware of their clichés and trying to refine them (there are a lot more in-jokes and fourth wall moments than I expected), but in the process of retooling the formula they’ve lost some of what made it work in the first place.

The real focus of the film is less on story and more the relationship between Moana and the demigod Maui, and in this area the movie shines brightly. Moana as a character is built a lot like her predecessors, mostly feeling like a combination of Pocahontas and Mulan with dashes of Ana and Merida, but Auli’i Cravalho’s charming and enthusiastic performance helps to keep her distinctive enough. It’s a little disappointing to see the “chosen one” narrative trotted out again for her, but thankfully they don’t play it up too much. Ultimately she feels like a character defined too much by what she isn’t rather than what she is. They don’t give her a love interest, no one questions her ability to become a leader, and her gender is never even brought up detrimentally beyond a brief knowing gag. That’s all great, but there’s very little to her as a character beyond her connection with the ocean and her desire to explore it.

But whilst Moana on her own feels a bit lacking, once Dwayne Johnson’s Maui comes into the plot the movie kicks up several notches and improves every other aspect of the film by association. In a performance that owes a great deal to Robin Williams’ legendary turn as The Genie in Aladdin, Johnson lets his already cartoonish charisma go on overdrive and he steals every second of screen time he can grab. His personality finally gives Cravalho something to play off of and the pair has an adorable chemistry throughout their adventure. Rachel House and Jemaine Clement are also fantastic in their supporting roles as Moana’s kooky grandmother/mentor and an amusingly flamboyant crab respectively, but their roles are far briefer. Temuera Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger also feel a bit underdeveloped as Moana’s parents, especially Morrison as the father. He’s the main obstacle for Moana in the first act, but once you finally learn his justified motivations they are never addressed again in what feels like another concession to the story made to fit the running time.

For Clements & Musker’s first outing into computer animation, they have created one of the most beautifully animated productions the studio has put out in recent years. The environments of Polynesia makes for a welcome change of pace from the usual European fantasylands and American cities, filled with gorgeously rendered water and lush tropical islands. The character animation is also wonderfully fluid and vibrant, with the real standout being the marvellous 2D animation of Maui’s sentient tattoos. The action sequences flow with an electric sense of energy, especially a pirate sequence that plays like a child-friendly Mad Max: Fury Road on water. The film’s music from Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda is wonderfully composed and fits the environment of the story perfectly, but some of the songs do blend together and they aren’t particularly well spread out across the film. There are definitely some standouts like “We Know the Way” and Clement’s wonderfully camp “Shiny” but once again Johnson takes the gold with “You’re Welcome”, a ridiculously catchy tune that rivals Beauty and the Beast’s “Gaston” for best smug Disney song ever.

Moana is a thoroughly enjoyable animated adventure that earns a strong place in the Disney pantheon, but it doesn’t quite rise to the lofty ranks it clearly aspires to reach. There’s a lot here like Dwayne Johnson’s performance as Maui and the gorgeous animation that is up there with some of the best work the studio has put out in recent years, but it lacks a distinct sense of spirit that gives the true Disney classics their lasting power. If you’re a Disney fanatic or the parents of one, you are going to end up seeing this anyway and I’m sure you’ll have a good time. Just don’t go in expecting another Frozen.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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