Movie Review: Disney Outdoes Itself with “Moana”

There are thousands of adjectives in the English language. Find all of the positive ones, and apply them to Disney’s newest animated release, “Moana.” It is dazzling, brilliant, exciting, breathtaking, gorgeous, heart-melting, culturally respectful, and feminist. It is all of that and more. Yes, it really is that good.

Moana is the hero of the story, from start to finish. From the Polynesian mother goddess, Te Fiti, to Grandmother Tala, to Moana, this is a story powered by female creators and navigators. Moana is only the second Disney heroine who has no love interest, the first being Pixar’s Merida in “Brave.” And like in “Brave” none is needed.

Using Polynesian mythology, “Moana” (which is Polynesian for ocean, sea, or sometimes blue) tells the story of a young girl on a thriving island. There are strict rules governing how far one can get near the sea, but it has called to Moana (sixteen-year-old newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, who was 14 years old when she recorded the film, making her the youngest Disney heroine voice ever) from the time she was a baby. The land is dying, thanks to a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) who stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. Aided by Grandma Tala (Rachel House), Moana finds a boat and sails off to meet her destiny.

The film gets absolutely everything right. The cast is all of Polynesian, Samoan, and Maori descent. Auli’i Cravalho is passionate in her vocals, and Dwayne Johnson is lovable as the mixed-up Maui. The animation is beyond being a treat for the eyes – it will have you pinching yourself in parts to believe this is an animation – the hair looks REAL, the sea and the water look REAL. When Moana falls into the sand, the way it sticks to her is REAL. This is nothing short of master artistry, and it raises the bar on all future animation films.

The story is a beautiful one; of course, it’s a hero’s journey “to be who you are,” a common Disney theme (Mulan, The Lion King, and dare I mention Pocahontas?). But it is so much more than that – it is a story about family, about sacrifice, about taking chances. It is also hysterically funny in parts. Disney pokes a little fun at itself (be sure to catch the line about the princess), especially in its animal sidekick HeiHei, who is as hilariously dumb as the rock he keeps trying to eat. And be sure to stay for the stinger at the end of the credits, because that’s a belly laugh all by itself.

The music is wonderful, but that’s not unexpected, as it is written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (before he wrote Hamilton, for those of you who are trivia nuts like me), Opetaia Foa’i (of the South Pacific fusion group Te Vaka) and Mark Mancini. Cross your fingers for an Oscar win for Lin-Manuel Miranda, which will make him only the third composer to win the PEGOT (Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) and the first person of color.

This film is something you won’t want to miss on the big screen. Take your children. Take your parents. Take your grandparents. Heck, grab a person off the street, and go see “Moana.” Now!

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