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Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) in "Moana"

Moana: Fresh as a Sea Breeze

ColinEldred-Cohen ColinEldred-Cohen On the peaceful island of Motunui (no, not the island where Bionicle takes place called Mata Nui) lives Moana (Auli’i Cravahlo, Louise Bush as a toddler), the future chief of the island. Her father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison, Christopher Jackson as his singing voice) keeps telling her to keep to the island, but something inside Moana keeps telling her to venture out beyond the reef into the sea. When a blight comes to their island and kills their crops and fish, Moana remembers a story from her grandmother (Rachel House) and sets sail into the ocean to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and make him return a stone call the Heart of Te Fiki to its rightful place that he stole it from long ago. With the ocean literally helping her out, she and Maui set off on a daring adventure to save her homeland.

Moana is absolutely beautiful inside and out, one of the best in the Disney Princess lineup. The stellar art and animation breathes a sense of wonder into the rich world that’s presented to us, full of enchantment, monsters, and a lot of fun set pieces. The story is also quite good, eschewing any romance the the Disney Princess films have become (in)famous for and feeling like an authentic journey of heroism and self discovery, almost like a Disney version of The Odyssey.

But journey’s don’t mean much if you don’t have likable characters and I had a lot of fun with our two leads. Moana herself is an interesting entry into the princess roster, adventurous and clever, but easily frustrated which gives her a bit of nuance. It’s hard to rank her amongst the other Disney princesses because each of them have their own qualities that make them stand out in different ways. As per tradition, she has an animal companion, a chicken named Heihei (Alan Tudyk… seriously) who seems to be nature’s counter-argument to natural selection. Seriously, this is one of the dumbest animals I have ever seen and while his antics were amusing, he may have cheated death a few too many times for my liking.

While we’re still talking about characters, I really had a lot of fun with Maui. He manages to walk that line of awesome and funny, of having a huge ego and the power to back it up. I wasn’t too distracted by Dwayne Johnson voicing him and was even more surprised to find that he could sing! Even more so, I loved the designs of his tattoos, not to mention that they acted like an actual character and how they acted through a different art style, almost like his own animal companion. I’m not sure how accurate his depiction (or any of the mythology) is in this movie, but given Disney’s history, I’d guess some liberties were taken.

The music is simply outstanding, fitting right in with the Polynesian setting. We have three people to thank for this: Opetaia Foa’i from the Oceanic musical group Te Vaka, Mark Mancina who helped compose music for The Lion King and Tarzan, to only name a few, and last but not least, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who composed the recent Broadway darling Hamilton. The latter’s fingerprints can definitely be felt on the rhyme schemes and the wordplay of several songs. They all fit the tone and the setting perfectly… save for one. A giant crab demon voiced by Jemaine Celment has a bombastic little number called “Shiny” that takes some heavy inspiration from David Bowie’s music. It’s not bad, but amidst all the polynesian tunes and melodies, it sticks out pretty hard.

While I can’t say this changed the world like Frozen did, I can definitely say this breathed something fresh into Disney’s lineup. It’s a refreshing take of optimism and progress in a very dark quarter of the year. There was also a lot of nuance in there; the story could be read as a metaphor for fixing a bad breakup or a broken bond between parent and son. This is definitely one to see this year and if there’s justice in the world, it’ll stick around for a long time.

Fun Tidbit

This actually isn’t the first time Disney’s worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda. He composed the cantina scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, made possible by J.J. Abrams bumping into the man after a Hamilton show after John Williams declined to write the music for that scene. In showbiz, timing really is everything.

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ColinEldred-Cohen ColinEldred-Cohen

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