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Stories of independence and female empowerment are nothing new for Disney, who have long progressed from fables of girls needing rescue to women who do the saving, with each making larger, more important steps toward what Moana finally is. This is a powerfully fitting story that creates a modern female hero who rightfully earns her place in a bright, lively film that never loses its grip and inspires with each passing frame.
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is a young woman about to become the first female chief of her Polynesian people. Naturally, she has long been a precocious and curious little girl who has been more drawn to the sea than the land beneath her feet. As her proud but conservative father and current chief (Temuera Morrison) desperately strives to keep the tribe safe on the island, Moana feels the answers to problems that have slowly been causing food shortages and fish depletion lies beyond the reef.
She learns the tale of Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a shape-shifting demigod who once stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, this being a tiny green emerald-like stone that only serves to cause a big problem for Maui, becoming stuck on an island for a thousand years without his magical, staff-sized fishhook. Moana sets out with her dimwitted pet chicken to find Maui and make him restore the stone, a task he’s not quite so willing to do once she finds him.
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, veterans of classic Disney movies such as The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992), Moana is a visually stunning experience that in itself makes this one of the more joyful movies of the year, but is also a smartly-written and superbly-voiced animated film that challenges as well as enlightens. Often very funny, it doesn’t shy away from more serious themes, layered over the colorful characters and catchy tunes. We are more than what we believe we are is the foundation of countless children’s movies, but so few do it with the confidence and assured respect for its audience as this.
Most of the movie’s impact stems from two outstanding performances. Johnson has been for more than a decade now, one of the most reliable, and charismatic actors working today, able to elevate even the silliest of films, comfortable in seemingly any type of role. With Maui, who is clearly modeled with his features in mind, he brings a warmth to the part that is certainly full of demigod-sized laughs, but also a vulnerability that is crucial to making him so likable. He is decorated in a number of malleable tattoos that provide silent commentary and a little encouragement for Maui, each detailing his past exploits that also serve as a way to literally paint parts of the story. It’s clever and funny.
Then there’s Cravalho, in her film debut, a native-born Hawaiian who gives a deeply nuanced and emotive performance, despite her young age. It stands as the film’s greatest strength. It’s not that she carries the movie, because there is much that makes this special, but she imbues Moana with such presence and profound honesty, we can’t help but fall under her spell. What’s also refreshing is the obligatory sidekick, a staple of the genre, a companion that has made significant transformations over the decades that Disney has used them. What’s interesting is how Disney itself seems self-aware of the trope and sets up one adorable piglet to be that character but outright pulls the rug from under that and instead throws in a chicken that is so brain-addled it pecks at rocks. It’s a genuinely funny creation but what the filmmakers do with it is where it wins, stripping away all of its hero potential and letting it be what it is.
It’s these touches and more, where Moana the movie and the character seem like the right evolution for Disney. There are a number of good tunes here as well, naturally, with a couple written by Hamilton writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. These tunes are not blockbuster songs that will saturate every corner of your online experience for a year, but ones that are plenty catchy enough (and one very moving) that feel comfortable. You might not be humming them after the film is over, but all the better, you’ll be thinking about the characters who sang them.
Moana is a thrilling, exciting adventure that should earn Disney top honors again when the time comes. A story that is surely female-empowered but equally enjoyable for anyone who comes to see, and should inspire lots of imagination in the audience it targets.
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Writers: Jared Bush, Ron Clements
Stars: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson
Genre: Children's, Adventure