Disney has had a long troubling history over the years when it comes to race and sexuality in their films. With examples like Aladdin (where a line “Where they cut off your hand if they don’t like your face” had to be removed from the original film after they realized its connotation) and extreme examples like Song of the South (which is pretty much unavailable due to its story involving a happy-go-lucky African-American slave), they have never had a shortage of controversial moments. Luckily, the times they are-a changing as Bob Dylan once said so it seems that Disney has been improving leaps and bounds since then to change the moviegoer perspective of the filmmaking giant and hopefully make some more steps in the way of progressive thinking. This film, Moana, was their ultimate opportunity to take a big step so did they manage to do so?
Moana concerns the story of the title character (played by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) who lives on an island with her family and their people but dreams of a day where she can go out into the ocean and reunite a mystical relic known as Te Fiti’s heart with the goddess Te Fiti herself. Through it all, she learns that the heart was once stolen by demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) in an attempt to harness its power. Instead, he has upset the balance of the world and was confronted by a lava demon, causing the heart to be lost at the bottom of the ocean as well as Maui’s magical fish hook.
This is, simply put, a brilliant and gorgeous film and a huge achievement for Disney. In what may be the best or at least one of the best Disney productions in the last decade or so, they have crafted something that has eluded them so much in the past: a film featuring characters that are not white played by people who are (get this!) not white. It is plainly obvious from the get-go that Disney took extra precautions in making sure that they were respecting the Polynesian characters and their culture by taking great care in not relying on stereotypes or misconceptions. This isn’t even the most remarkable thing about this movie but I wanted to emphasize it just because It makes me so elated to see this start to happen especially as it arrives on movie screens at this crucial and conflict-heavy time period in our history.
As for the film itself, it is simply wonderful. The animation is some of the best stuff I have seen in a long time right up there with Kubo and the Two Strings but of a completely different style at the same time. The lush landscapes and even the simple movements of the characters are captured in a beautiful light and at times I was even astonished as it almost looked way too realistic than it had any right to in an animated film. There are stunning details involving the work put into the ocean as it becomes its own character in the film and things like Moana’s hair and the way in which it moves is a thing of beauty as well. The most impressive bit of animation involves Maui’s tattoos, which also have a life of their own and they each have their own symbolic meaning and importance to the plot.
So many highlights in this movie make it impossible to list them all but there are several notable sequences that I don’t want to go without mentioning here. One of those includes an attack by several cutesy coconut-like characters known as the Kakamora. At first they seem relatively harmless but they are quickly shown to be quite vicious and rabid. That entire sequence is high-octane and a lot of fun but not only that as it may also stay in your head as a classic Disney scene. Another one involves Jemaine Clement as a giant crab with an affinity for shiny things as he launches into a memorable song as only a member of the Flight of the Conchords could do! Oh yeah, did I not mention the songs? Because the movie is like a classic Disney film in that it is also a musical filled with songs and each of them are catchy and memorable! I would even say that they stayed with me overall more than the ones in the excellent Frozen. I was singing the words to “You’re Welcome” in my head all the way home. Do you also want some talent behind the scenes? How about the fact that the lyrics to most of the songs were co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of the stars of Broadway’s “Hamilton?”
Aside from the casting of the relatively unknown Auli’i Cravalho as Moana (which is a beautiful piece of casting as she hits all the right notes and captivates the audience from the beginning of the movie), we also get Dwayne Johnson as Maui. Not since Robin Williams’ performance as the Genie have I ever been so captivated by a vocal performance in a Disney film. Johnson electrifies every time that his voice is heard as the demigod Maui and the role is perfectly catered to his strengths as a performer. When he was not on-screen (which wasn’t often) I often looked forward to his return but it doesn’t hurt the rest of the film because the entirety of it is amazing (in case you haven’t realized all my gushing praise for this film).
It’s in strong running for top honours this year so I’d put it right alongside Kubo and see which one comes out on top at the end of the year. For the love of Maui, see this movie. You won’t regret it.
PS: Did I mention that there are two cute animal companions – a cute piggy and an absent-minded chicken?
* (Brutal; the worst rating)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)