Moana – animated film review

"Moana" theatrical teaser poster.
“Moana” theatrical teaser poster.
Disney’s latest “princess movie”, Moana, does a lot of things right.

Inner Workings, the short that precedes the main movie, is charming and put me in a mood to run away to someplace with warm sand and clear water. At what can be a high-stress time of year, it was a timely, clever reminder that—necessary though “adulting” may be—we need to leave room in our lives to take a few risks and just have fun, as well.

The themes of the short segue nicely into the main movie, which tells the tale of Moana, the headstrong, happy-go-lucky daughter of the chief (NOT a princess, as she repeatedly insists!). Through a series of events that had been building since long before Moana was born, she winds up needing to leave her island home and sail in search of the demigod Maui. She must convince him to sail with her to return the heart of Te Fiti. There are many excellent summaries of the plot online, so I won’t go into that here. Instead, I will delve into some things that worked (and, in a couple of cases, did not work) really well.

First, though I enjoy a good love story as much as the next person, I loved that Moana focused on coming-of-age and family and creating one’s place in the world. Romance was nowhere on the radar at all, and—for a Disney princess film—that was a refreshing change of pace.

The character development is just right for a film that needs to appeal to viewers of all ages. It’s sufficient to make characters believable, interesting, and sympathetic, yet viewers are seldom drowned in more detail than the story needs. I thought the storytellers and animators did a particularly brilliant job of turning the ocean into a character—a quirky, tempestuous, oft-exasperated, and very sympathetic one, at that.

The one spot where the beautiful economy of characterization faltered in Moana was the scene with the enormous coconut crab, Tamatoa. I know distracting/tricking him was the whole point of the one scene he was in (well, excluding the bonus bit in the credits—stay to watch it, it’s funny), but still…that scene dragged, and we didn’t need as much of Tamatoa’s habits and quirks and backstory as we got.

Illustration from "Inner Workings", a short film from Disney.
Illustration from “Inner Workings”, a short film from Disney.

In the media, much has been made of Maui’s character and whether or not it’s plugging into Polynesian stereotypes. I’m not Polynesian, and have only been able to visit that beautiful part of the world once, so I can’t really speak to the stereotypes issue. However, from a storytelling perspective, I thought Maui was perfect: powerful and charismatic and crazy, but in a crazy-uncle/mentor kind of way, never crossing the line into potential love interest.

The animators could have made Maui slimmer and a veritable model of Polynesian male beauty. I’m very glad they didn’t. It would have ruined his quirky appeal as a character and would have strained the credibility of one of his main motivations: doing one amazing task after another after another, for humanity, in the too-often-unrealized hope of being loved.

The Moana soundtrack is delightful, upbeat, and catchy. More than a week after watching the film, I still find myself humming its main tunes. I would’ve liked to hear more traditional Polynesian music on the soundtrack, but that’s a very minor quibble.

The animation is spectacular. Really. Every little detail is visually breathtaking. Disney’s animators really outdid themselves, this time. Even if everything else about the movie were awful (which certainly is not the case), Moana would still be worth watching, just for the visuals.

I loved the ending and denouement of the film. Not going to spoil it, for any readers who haven’t seen the movie yet, but to the folks who wrote and animated it…bravo! Very, very well done, indeed.

On the whole, Moana was a thoroughly enjoyable film. I highly recommend it and look forward to seeing it again.

Release Date: November 23, 2016 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG
Language: English

MySF Rating: Four point five stars
Family Friendliness: 95%


Alcohol/Drugs: 0
Language: 0
Nudity: 1 (small children dressed/undressed appropriately for tropical weather)
Sexuality: 0
Violence: 2 (natural peril, animated combat, scary fire demon)

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