AFI Fest 2016: Moana (Movie Review)

moana poster 1Moana is the 56th film from Walt Disney Animation Studios and continues on in a tradition that shows how the studio has built a firm reputation. Of course, more recent entries have really had to up their game in how the princess and princess-type characters are treated. It certainly shows in Moana, a mostly excellent adventure that’s so confident it almost veers too close to how in-the-know it is about what it plans to accomplish. That is hardly a criticism though, as the film is entertaining in all the right ways.



Making an effort to further expand its horizons, this Disney princess movie is set on an island in Polynesia. Moana (voiced as a teenager by Auli’i Cravalho) has always been in love with the ocean and the ocean seems to have favorable feelings about her. Due to tough times hitting her home, Motunui Island, Moana eventually sneaks off via boat to search for Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a legendary shape-shifting demigod who has a deep connection to the spirit of the ocean.

While the film lives up to many ideas you tend to find in a family adventure film, there are some surprises worth holding onto in an effort to have the audience discover things for themselves. One to throw out is an early reveal, however, which lets us know Maui is not quite the hero one would assume. The film’s prologue makes it clear that he took part in actions that could spell possible doom for others. This information leads to fine character interaction by the time Moana and Maui actually meet.

Given that Moana is very much a musical adventure and not a romantic comedy with songs, it was actually great to see bickering and even some hostile interplay to go along with the fun buddy movie angle this film goes for. The thematic material may not be as invigorating as Disney’s Zootopia from earlier this year, but Moana does make a strong case for featuring an empowered female whom anyone can look up to. Additionally, Maui may be a demigod, but his character’s journey is relatable and impressive to watch unfold.

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Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) do plenty to make this film all kinds of exciting though both the visuals and musical numbers. Both are key to why this film is a great success and it is great to see the film (and its marketing) capitalize off of that fact. Walking into Moana, it was no mystery I would be watching a film about a female hero that features plenty of songs. Delivering so well on those elements is certainly what made the cinematic experience worthwhile.

Dealing with lots of ocean, the look of the water is terrific here. We see characters constantly interact with it, let alone the various locations and creatures Moana and Maui encounter, and it is all quite impressive. There is a terrific action sequence midway through the film and one wild musical number with Jemaine Clement, taking place in the most exotic of locations that will surely be among the standout moments to highlight in years to come. Even if I’m wrong though, there are plenty of other musical options to choose from.

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Moana features music by Opetaia Foa’I, Mark Mancia and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Clearly a lot of effort went into making these tracks as there is an actual excuse to want to emulate Johnson’s singing voice. Many of the songs serve as expositional ways to understand the characters and some plot elements, but they are quite engaging. Moana gets the key song that expresses her desires, even if it’s not the power ballad that was “Let it Go”. That said, Moana actually does have that final musical reprise that Frozen was lacking, which makes the film feel like a more complete musical experience, in addition to a strong adventure story.

I am not sure what else to say beyond “lava monsters” and “really dumb chickens that are hilarious” as far was showing signs of clear recommendation for Moana. The film has all the great elements of a new Disney classic. The fantastic visuals and enjoyable musical numbers are matched by strong and complicated character work that goes a long way for a studio that could have just cashed in on cuteness. Moana doesn’t necessarily reinvent anything from the animated rulebook, but it does show just how strong Disney continues to be in keeping its animated brand alive and well.

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