There’s a running theme throughout all of the latter-day Walt Disney Animation Studios films which binds them all together: empowerment, be it of the female variety, the disenfranchised, or the shunned. Moana is no different, and it once again proves why The Mouse House truly leads the way in creating valuable, universal entertainment. From the exuberant voice casting to the well-executed animation to the primal, anthemic music and score, Moana packs quite a mighty wallop.
To me, Moana is the exact opposite of “phoning it in”; instead, great pains are taken to show every bit of the filmmaking crew’s efforts, and it’s quite a thing to appreciate. It starts with the voice cast, led by the feisty Auli’i Cravalho as the titular Moana, an island chief’s daughter next in line for the throne. From what little behind-the-scenes video I’ve seen of her, newcomer Cravalho is the perfect match for her character, being caring and loving, yet strong-willed with a deep adventurous streak running through her. Moana grows up fearing the ocean, for it has taken some of her people’s best explorers away with its tides and crashing waves, but her heart tells her she’s meant for something different.
Her centerpiece song, “How Far I’ll Go,” showcases a true yearning to go beyond what’s been set for her, and it’s a yearning you feel right in your gut thanks to heartbreakingly inspired singing by Cravalho, and lyricists and musical composers Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina (the latter of whom provides the film’s driving, thundering score). Throughout the film, their polyrhythms and melodies create a fantastic, driving musical landscape from which this film springs forth. The earnest vocal on “You’re Welcome” by Dwayne Johnson, who plays trickster demi-god Maui, may have a fair share of Auto-Tune, but Auto-Tune can’t erase the ebullient raucousness of his performance.
Both Moana and Maui take center stage as she fights to stave off a blight affecting her island’s crops and fishing counts, spurred on by a legend her grandmother (the utterly sublime Rachel House) passes onto her in the film’s opening scene. Long ago, Maui stole the heart of island goddess Te Fiti to give to humanity for creation purposes; in making his escape, Maui loses both the heart and his legendary fishhook weapon to lava demon Te Ka, who rises from the sea to avenge the wrong done to Te Fiti. Moana is destined to reverse this by finding Maui in exile and bringing him to Te Fiti to restore her heart.
These scenes between Moana and Maui show a developing friendship akin to a brother/sister dynamic, with spirited and vibrant vocal performances from both Cravalho and Johnson. It must be said that even though we don’t physically see Johnson on screen, his trademark charisma leaps through his voice performance, making a definitive mark as the wisecracking punk he’s believed to be. But Moana’s straightforward, no-nonsense attitude cuts through the witty veneer, and Johnson adds further depth to Maui by being believably solemn in these few scenes.
There are a lot of similarities in themes and plot points between Moana and Frozen – so many, that once upon a time, my review was titled “My Review of Moana, or How Disney Keeps Us Forking Over Money For Frozen Knockoffs.” Let’s see – both feature a heroine made to be afraid of something by a parent, only to have their advice ignored, which leads to the drive behind the whole film. The desires of a world they want to be in or the life they want to live are spotlighted in a showstopping, often breathtaking number, followed quickly by a humorous take by one of the film’s characters on how they see life as simply fun. Both start with gentle chants in the key of G, and without meaning to spoil either film, their endings are a little too similar for my taste.
However, to dismiss Moana as a Frozen knockoff is a disservice to Moana, as its themes of discovery, adventure, and repentance make it a more tangible and grounded film. Moana is absolutely selfless in her quest to save her island, and it’s through this selflessness that she gains her purpose. The differences between Frozen’s two princesses and Moana couldn’t be more vast, as the two films are about separate ideals. While one is about loving someone regardless of circumstance, the other is about destiny and its fulfillment. Bearing stunning animation and passion throughout, Moana makes a strong statement about one’s place in this world and being strong enough to earn it.