(With the approach of Moana’s release on Blu-ray, I thought it only appropriate to share my review)
I have to admit, upon hearing about it, I was a little worried about Disney’s newest offering, Moana. After all, Disney has been doing such a great job with their animation this year. Zootopia absolutely blew me away and I was entirely unprepared for the depths of that journey, which is the rarest and most welcome gift that a movie-goer can receive. After that experience, I was concerned that a return to the Disney Princess format may signal a regression of sorts, but I was wrong. Moana was more than a worthy entry into its intended genres; this film was exactly what 2016 needed.
For many, 2016 has been a rough year, filled with disappointment, grief, and fear. All of these emotions give one a sense of, “Where do we go from here?” This dogging question of both deeply personal and widely cultural wandering isn’t merely addressed in Moana, but answered loud and clear, though it’s possible I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I originally saw the trailer for Moana, I assumed it would be similar to Pocahontas, with elements of Finding Nemo in it. Upon exiting the theater for the first (of three!) theatrical viewings, I realized the movie was more like Brave meets Hercules, which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that one of the creators was responsible for Hercules, and this was a nice blending of elements for me, since I happen to enjoy mythology quite a bit. And, boy, does the mythology grip you right out of the gate.
Moana opens with an ominous myth about a demigod named Maui, using his magical fish-hook that allows him to shape-shift to steal the Heart of Creation from the mother island, Teh Fiti, which leads to a confrontation between Maui and a dark god named Te Ka. The encounter ends with Maui struck down and both his fish-hook and the Heart lost to the sea. Moana’s grandmother, Tala, tells this tale to a group of young island dwellers, a toddler Moana among them, and, naturally, Moana is the only one of them filled with a sense of wonder rather than dread. Moana’s grandmother insists that this myth is rooted in reality and that, one day, the sea will choose someone to find Maui and enlist his aid to restore the Heart and cleanse the Earth of its sickness. This doesn’t sit too well with Moana’s father, the island chieftain, who forbids his people from venturing beyond the safety and idyllic comfort of the island’s reef.
From there, the story is one quite familiar to Disney fans. Through an act of selflessness, Moana is chosen by the sea to find Maui and restore the Heart to Teh Fiti, and it’s a journey filled with both internal and external obstacles.
It’s a story of overcoming fear to discover who you really are. Only, it’s more than that: the message of being true to the best versions of ourselves is far from confined to Moana or the young girls who can relate to her character. This film offers a commentary on the tug of war that exists within a multifaceted contemporary society and challenges us to find the bravery to not only look the darkest aspects of our souls in the eye but to fight for the right of our best selves to exist in the face of apathy and heartache. There is a message within that says we need more than the honesty it takes to admit our faults, because we are more than one thing: we can be angry and afraid but we must also remember we are descended from brave women and men who found the courage to seek new horizons and use new ideas to find them. And we betray that bravery when lose that desire for a New Frontier. As the movie shows, it’s all too easy to adopt the notion that we’ve achieved enough and the world beyond our sphere of knowledge and power has nothing to offer us, but the safety of that lie will eventually betray us just as we betray the heritage of our cultural heroes.
These themes are dressed up in Disney staples like songs, sidekicks, and seemingly impossible quests. The storytelling hiccups are few and far between, like perhaps having one or two too many songs that run long, though maybe the evident value of screen time speaks to Moana’s sense of urgency. We’re given great performances from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Maui and, of course, Auli’i Cravalho as Moana. There are also subtle but undeniably significant contributions from Alan Tudyk as Heihei the Chicken, Nicole Scherzinger as Moana’s mother, Sina, and Temuera Morrison as Moana’s father, Chief Tui. However, Rachel House as Moana’s grandmother, Tala, steals every scene and song in which she’s featured. House infuses the film with a level of soul that it could have easily lacked if the movie lost its sense of heritage and honor. And the power of that soul is persistent throughout, carried on through Moana from the first time we see the wonder in her eyes right until the end of the film, when that wonder is transformed into purpose.
Moana found her way.
Now, with a new year looming, we must find ours.