November 21, 2016

Moana Review: Familiar and New At the Same Time

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Moana One Sheet

I think most of us can rattle of our top 5 Disney animated movies. Some go back to childhood – The Rescuers, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – while others are played on a loop in our minds from the many times our kids ask to watch it. I grew up in the 70s and 80s but had to wait until I was in college for the first big modern hit, The Little Mermaid, swim into my memory. While it may not make it into your all-time top 5, Moana is sure to become a classic.

This week we welcome another strong young woman in the ever-expanding lineup of princesses, Moana Waialiki (voiced by Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho). We know she’s a princess because her back-story tells us so. But even if we’re not convinced, her soon-to-be friend, Maui (voice by Dwayne Johnson) clearly points out, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” Hard to argue with that!

Academy Award-winning writer/director and New Zealand native Taika Waititi wrote Moana’s original script and the movie was directed by Disney veterans John Musker and Ron Clements, Moana is the first “Disney princess” movie not to give the leading lady a love interest. Compared to the now-classic modern Disney princess movies – The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahantas, Brave, and Frozen – Moana’s story joins that of warrior princess Mulan’s where it’s girl versus the world to save her family.

While her father, the chief, is in the movie, early on we get a strong sense that women are well-respected in her Polynesian culture. Moana’s grandmother is the chief storyteller in the beginning and sets the stage for the journey Moana will take. We learn about the disgraced demi-god Maui and are given an idea of how he will be part of her journey, but it’s not until Moana meets him that we’re treated to his humor. It was Maui, whose actions set the course for putting Moana’s people in peril, the set the stage for Moana’s grand adventure.

Moana HeiHei

Years prior, Maui took a mystical stone, “the heart of Te Fiti”, that causes Moana to set out on this open-ocean adventure. Like Pocahontas, Moana has two animal friends. However, only one, Heihei the clueless rooster, joins her on the water even though he should have stayed on the island. Nonetheless, he provides for comic relief among the few moments of tension.

While Moana means ‘ocean’ in Maori (the Polynesian people of New Zealand), Maui will likely evoke a sense of Hawaii among most moviegoers. A bit stereotypical, Maui is a large, hulking figure who knows the history of their ancestors, is covered in tattoos, and can shape-shift through the magical powers of his giant fish-hook sword alternative.

Moana and Maui

The plot is relatively simple – girl defies her father and sets out on an adventure to save her people and in the process makes a friend and defeats the enemy – but we’re taken along in a way that keeps you engaged and brings you back when you’re starting to feel like it’s becoming trite. Moana and Maui have to work together, but there is no romance that is brewing. Both are strong and have an appreciation of each other that does not need to be woven together with a love story.

Instead, the two join forces to return the stone so Maui can continue his journey through life and Moana and her people can, once again, live freely as their ancestors once did.

It wouldn’t be a Disney movie without great music, right? It’s the songs that keep us connected (along with all the merchandise!) to the movie. Moana doesn’t disappoint, but it’s no Frozen. With music by the renown Disney music writer Mark Mancina, we’re treated to a soundtrack that includes the lead singer of a South Pacific fusion band, Opetaia Foa’i, and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. While you may not think the music would hold together with such an eclectic group, it’s that diversity that keeps you wondering what’s coming next.

The movie is adorable and I’m sure will be a big hit. Will it be “the next Frozen”, I highly doubt it. Will it make you want to plan your next trip to Disney’s Aulani Resort on O’ahu? I wouldn’t be surprised. I anticipate an interest in all-things Hawai’i from this movie. Partly because of the island-theme, but also because Moana and her people are portrayed with such authenticity and depth it’s hard not to love them and want to feel that spirit.

My first impression of the movie was that it felt like Brave meets Hamilton with a musical interlude by Flight of the Conchords. If you don’t know Flight of the Conchords you might not get my description, but I throw them in because of the giant crab (voice by Jemaine Clement of FotC) scene. Nonetheless, I stick by that characterization. I use Brave instead of Mulan, mainly because Brave is more recent, but it easily could be Mulan meets Hamilton with a musical interlude by FotC. I say this not as a slight to the movie. However, in the first few minutes of the movie the song(s) take on a very Hamilton-esque cadence and feel that Baby Girl whispered that the songs seemed really familiar but she couldn’t place it. That’s when I whispered back ‘Hamilton’.

Go see the movie! It’s a sweet story (just know there are very few slightly scary parts), there’s a connected plot, and just when you think it could start to get boring you’re jolted back with a song or humorous exchange between the characters. Plus the music! It’s beautiful music and well thought out. It might not replace “Let it Go”, but there is hope.

Moana is rated PG
Run time: 1 hour 53 minutes
In theaters: Nov. 23, 2016

Images: ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Sara

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