‘Moana’: Film Review

by Michael Rechtshaffen

Boosted by songs co-written by ‘Hamilton’ sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda, this colorful Polynesian animated excursion from Disney features voice work from Dwayne Johnson and young newcomer Auli’i Cravalho.

Appealing equally to the eyes, ears, heart and funny bone, Moana represents contemporary Disney at its finest – a vibrantly rendered adventure that combines state-of-the-art CG animation with traditional storytelling and colorful characters, all enlivened by a terrific voice cast.

Drawing upon the folkloric cultures of the Pacific Islands, this tale about a self-possessed teen who embarks on a quest to save her home turf from looming extinction required the proven talents of two teams of directors to tell its story: Ron Clements and John Musker ( The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) and co-directors Chris Williams and Don Hall ( Big Hero 6).

It may have taken a village, but when you add in a selection of infectious, soul-stirring songs by Hamilton sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda along with score composer Mark Mancina and Samoan musician Opetaia Tavita Foa’i, you’ve got a tropical Frozen with the potential for a similarly wide-reaching audience when Moana (pronounced “Mo-ahna”) sails into theaters Nov. 23 (it will have its world premiere Nov. 14 at AFI Fest).

Even though she has felt the call of the ocean ever since she was just a small child, spirited Moana (impressive newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) has been forbidden by her father, Tui (Temuera Morrison), the chief of the village of Motunui, to travel beyond the reef that surrounds their island. In many ways she’s a kindred spirit of Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, who also contended that there must be more than her provincial life.

But when a dire ecological occurrence threatens their future, Moana defies her father’s wishes, setting out into the uncharted waters to undo a curse visited upon her people after Maui, the demigod of the wind and sea, stole the heart of Te Fiti, the mother island (a sort of goddess from whom all other islands sprung).

Accompanied on her excursion by Heihei (Alan Tudyk), a rainbow-colored chicken who definitely isn’t the brightest bird in the flock, Moana soon comes face to face with Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who turns out to be more like a charismatic rocker/lost-boy type than a feared semi-deity. Though at first reluctantly, the two ultimately join forces, facing numerous obstacles en route to reuniting the glowing green heart with its rightful owner.

While the studio may have in the past faced criticism for whitewashing cultural storylines, both the look of the film’s characters and the accompanying voice casting have been carried out with notable sensitivity. In addition to 15-year-old Cravalho, a native Hawaiian with a nice dramatic range, and Johnson, who is of Polynesian heritage and also does his own singing here (is there nothing The Rock can’t do?), supporting players Morrison, Rachel House (as Moana’s encouraging grandmother) and Jemaine Clement as the bug-eyed, crab-like Tamatoa are all New Zealanders of Maori descent.

Effectively interweaving those Samoan, Tahitian and Fijian oral traditions with their own distinct sensibilities, screenwriter Jared Bush, who also penned this year’s Zootopia, and the quartet of directors manage to work in plenty of offbeat humor at every inventive turn. At one point, Maui insists the chief’s daughter must be a princess because all princesses wear a dress and are accompanied by an animal sidekick.

But if Moana boldly ventures beyond the reef, so, too, does the breathtakingly beautiful animation break fresh visual ground. Letting the natural light of the sun and the moon inform virtually every textured frame, the film boasts backgrounds that are awash in phosphorescent greenery and shimmering blue waters.

Equally strong are the tunes; you can definitely hear Miranda’s inspirational hip-hop stylings in songs like “You’re Welcome” and “How Far I’ll Go,” which, if not quite as catchy as “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” and “Let It Go,” come pretty darned close.

Accompanying screenings of Moana will be the animated short Inner Workings, Leo Matsuda’s wryly satirical portrait, Inside/Out style, of a meek everyman who decides to start taking chances in life.

Distributor: Disney
Production company: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Voice cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Co-directors: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Screenwriter: Jared Bush
Producer: Osnat Shurer
Executive producer: John Lasseter
Production designer: Ian Gooding
Editor: Jeff Draheim
Composer: Mark Mancina
Casting director: Jamie Sparer Roberts
Rated PG, 103 minutes

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