I’ve been so fortunate to see Disney’s latest animated feature film, Moana, twice now – as well as having the incredible opportunity of hearing animator Andy Harkness (Art Director – Environments and Color) and screenwriter Jared Bush provide even more insight into the movie. If you’re just looking for an endorsement, here it is: you should probably go see the movie. If you’re looking for more feedback, read on!
From Walt Disney Animation Studios comes “Moana,” a sweeping, CG-animated feature film about an adventurous teenager who sails out on a daring mission to save her people.
Young Moana, daughter of the village chief on the island of Motunui, has always had a strong connection to the ocean – though she isn’t quite sure why. The only problem? Her people are not allowed to travel beyond the reef. The ocean is full of darkness and danger, says Moana’s father Chief Tui, and this rule is the only way to keep the people of Motunui safe.
The story is inspired in large part by a true mystery. For centuries, the people of Oceania were voyagers. They set sail time and again, across the ocean, discovering new lands as they went. And then the voyaging stopped. Nobody knows exactly why, but this mystery was the seed that Disney writers needed to begin telling a great story – a story of adventure, and of finding one’s identity.
When things begin to go wrong on her island, Moana decides she must set sail to set things right. Along the way she meets Maui, a larger-than-life, shape-shifting demigod. Maui has been marooned on an island for centuries. He has lost his magical fishhook, and with it his hsape-shifiting ability. He is responsible for the darkness approaching Moana’s island, which leads him on a journey to rediscover his own identity. The two have an incredible adventure, and learn important lessons along the way.
The heroine is portrayed by Auli’i Cavalho, a 16-year-old from the island of Oahu. She is joined by a talented voice cast of Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Alan Tudyk (Hei Hei), Jermaine Clement (Tamatoa), and Nicole Sherzinger (Sina), among others. The movie is directed by the acclaimed team Ron Clements and John Musker, whose directorial work includes The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog, and Hercules. The music was created by a trio including a legendary film composer, a beloved musician of the Pacific Islands, and a guy you may have heard of lately, Lin Manuel-Miranda (of Hamilton fame).
From the onset of production, the team traveled around the world and put together the Oceanic Story Trust – a team of consultants made up of anthropologists, academics, educators, linguists, master navigators and culture advisors – and spent countless hours with fisherman, tattoo artists, and other locals. All of the influence these groups were able to provide led to a film that is visually stunning, but also incredibly celebratory of Oceanic culture and history.
Our Family’s Review
My whole family loved this film. We immediately fell in love with Grandma Tala, the “village crazy lady” and Moana’s biggest supporter. Moana’s pet pig Pua is as charming and cute as we expected him to be, though admittedly we were a little disappointed he was hardly in the movie. Her mother Sina plays a relatively small role, yet one of her brief scenes has perhaps the most power to wreck me every time. It is clear that Sina wants what is best for her daughter; she trusts her, and is incredibly proud of her, but struggles to balance looking out for Moana’s safety with encouraging her to do what she was meant to do. I’m pretty sure it’s a battle to which every mother who watches can relate.
The film provides plenty of laugh-out-loud moments – thanks in large part to the rooster Hei Hei, but also to the Kakamora (coconut-clad pirates who are after something Moana has), and to the chemistry between Moana and Maui. Some will also be highly entertained by a scene with Tamatoa – a giant, self-centered crab from the Realm of Monsters, who wants everything good (and shiny!) for himself. Personally, and this is probably my one complaint about the film (aside from one ridiculously out of place line about Twitter that is never going to stand the test of time), I think his entire scene is a little absurd. It doesn’t fit the style, it runs a little long, and really seems like a major distraction more than anything that adds value. I’m not alone in this thought, but when I watched the film with hundreds of people, probably half of them felt completely differently. I think this scene will be polarizing, but not about anything important. Ultimately, I took a little 7-minute power nap the second time I saw the movie (hey, Destination D was exhausting!), and there is no love lost for the project overall.
The Moana soundtrack has quickly become one of our favorites. I think all five of us have a different favorite song, but you can’t go wrong with any of them. “We Know the Way” is powerful and uplifting, and will make you want to dance. Moana sings “How Far I’ll Go” – easily my favorite. Miranda says it was intimidating writing a song for a Disney heroine. “You think of Ariel with ‘Part of Your World’ or ‘Reflection’ from ‘Mulan.’ This is Moana’s chance to say for herself how she feels and where she belongs,” he says, just before he absolutely knocks it out of the park. “Where you Are”, “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)” (which hits me in the gut every time), and “Know Who You Are” serve as vehicles for some of the most transformational scenes of the movie. Maui’s “You’re Welcome” is hilarious and fun, and even “Shiny” (Tamatoa’s song) is enjoyable on its own. Perhaps the character and scene will grow on me.
I have mentioned before how an evening in Hawaii took me back to the time we first saw Moana‘s ocean introduced, during the Animation Panel at the D23 Expo in 2015. For the people of Oceania, the ocean isn’t just a body of water that separates chunks of land. Instead, it is something that connects us all, something that has a life of its own. That introductory scene (still in the movie, for the most part, and still breathtaking) hit me that night, as I marveled at all the ocean represents in a world made by a super creative God. (Side note: in the movie, the ocean has no face or limbs but is absolutely capable of emoting. I think Disney may have Pixar’s Luxo Jr to thank for that concept, but holy cow is it done well.)
That same ocean – tranquil at times, ferocious others – as well as lava monsters, mountains, and other scenery, provide a look at environments we haven’t seen in such a way – and they’re truly stunning. It’s not “photo real” animation like we saw in Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (perhaps the only positive thing you’ve heard me say about that movie, I know…) but it’s breathtaking nonetheless.
More stuff for Parents…
There are a few scenes that will be intense for young viewers – including a moderately long battle with the lava monster Te Ka and a scene or two where the ocean’s danger becomes a bit too real for our Heroine. It’s nothing you wouldn’t expect from a Disney film about an epic adventure on the ocean, but it’s no Inside Out (which is still probably the most brilliant movie ever, in my opinion, but in this context also had zero visible villains.)
There are uses of the word “butt” (“butt cheek”, actually, which is even funnier to my children…) and “dumb” (or “stupid”?) which may have your children tattling on the film writers. This happens fewer than 5 times; we simply told our kids that if we find ourselves obsessing over the phrase “butt cheek” (rather than just letting it happen, giggling a little because it really is a funny line, and moving on) we may not be big enough to watch. They seemed to adopt an appropriate relationship with the language choices after such advice. 🙂
As you may expect, the story relies heavily on the idea of spirits of our ancestors, a polytheistic, Pacific Islands “creation story”, etc. This is very much like we’ve seen in Pocahontas and Brother Bear, or any similar stories rooted in indigenous cultures, but it’s worth noting if you have differing religious viewpoints. In our family, we have no problem with movies like this. We talk about these ideas as tales of another culture, and discuss how people can have different beliefs (and therefore different stories) that may not match ours. That’s real life, right? But I totally understand that these conversations can be very family specific, kid specific, or may even change for one family through different seasons of life.
I do love that Moana provides a lot of opportunities for universally positive messages – messages about curiosity, courage, contentment, grief, and strength. Moana goes through a few transformations from wanting little to do with her heritage, to reluctantly settling in and doing her very best with what she has been given, to wondering still if there isn’t more out there for her. It may just be me (and it’s absolutely me), but this is one of the most poignant narratives about life – and one that, for older children, might start some really great discussions. As I listened to the soundtrack again this morning, I realized this is what makes this movie so special for me. I knew it would be entertaining; I didn’t know that I would have so very much in common with the daughter of a village chief from ancient Oceania.
Producer Osnat Shurer says, “This isn’t a love story—it’s action, adventure, fun and drama. Moana wants to save the world—literally—even though she’s just about the only person who realizes it needs saving. She’s a powerful role model for today’s audiences.” Though it’s no surprise I don’t have a problem with princesses and love stories, I have to agree with her. This movie may do more than just provide entertainment for your holiday weekend and beyond. Moana, along with the short Inner Workings (shown in theaters before the film), should be incredibly inspiring to audiences – young and old – to figure out what it looks like to follow your heart, do the right thing, and also to find contentment with who and where you are.
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