Screened Out – Disney’s Moana

[five-star-rating]Voices of Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho, Jermaine Clemente, Nicole Scherzinger[/five-star-rating]

Pacific Islander folklore meets Broadway-style tunes and 3D computer animation – could it possibly work? Yes, it can!

Disney does what they do best, breaking ground and making merchandise. But this time, a plucky heroine and a goofy demigod challenge the typical template. And then great vocal talent, snappy tunes, and scene after scene of absolutely breathtaking scenery bring Moana to life.

Moana's scenery is breathtaking.
Moana’s scenery is breathtaking.

Disney continues its winning streak in animation. They’re not selling medical robots turned heroes (Big Hero 6) or ice palaces (Frozen). They sell hula skirts, Maori tattoos, and a heroine without a love interest, ready to sail her own path.

Good thing the beautiful ocean is on Moana’s side!

The film is so visually spectacular; Disney could buy a Pacific Island off the profits. Hey! Maybe what the Mouse is selling this time is a tropical travel getaway!

In this legend, Moana (newcomer Cravalho ) is the chief’s daughter. (But don’t call her a princess!) Her gorgeous island is dying from some strange, dark curse. Moana believes the only way to save her homeland is to defy her father. This means setting sail on an ancient boat to find the silly, egocentric demigod Maui (Johnson) and right an ancient wrong.

Just like all the best Disney films, there’s magic and magnificence. Some of the absolute best scenic work Disney’s ever done – scads and scads of animator – bring this wondrous world to shimmering life. It’s a story filled with humor and color and light.

And then the songs seal the deal. Broadway composer Lin-Manuel Miranda teams with traditional songwriter Opetaia Foa’I and score composer Mark Mancina. The intricate rhymes are actually clever! These musicians give respect to Pacific folk tunes, while these songs actually move the movie along!

And then Broadway compser Lin-Manual Miranda (In the Heights, Hamilton) adds his magic.
And then Broadway composer Lin-Manual Miranda (In the Heights, Hamilton) adds his magic.

And as an added bonus, Johnson does his own singing! It’s pretty solid – if not Tony-worthy – work. And Johnson also gets to pay tribute to his Islander heritage!

It’s a wonder it didn’t all fall apart! This film has four directors and eight writers. However, this is one curse Moana escapes.

Sure there are small quibbles to be made. First of all, Moana has those very cliché adorable sidekick animals – this time a dog-like pig and a brain-damaged rooster (who often steals the show). Secondly, the plot lacks surprise. Johnson’s Maui may slightly remind us of Robin Williams’ famous Genie. His tattoos recall the illustrations in Disney’s Hercules. Moana is as defiant as Disney’s Mulan.

The magic also doesn’t always make sense. Given the ocean is on Moana’s side, it certainly could help her out a bit more.


Finally, there’s one moment where the story wanders waaay too far away from the Pacific. Though the character it introduces is still wildly entertaining, the inconsistency is jarring.

That’s just a moment, though, in a film that is a delight to behold. Because, in it’s own way, Moana is a tropical getaway. And it’s a lot cheaper to go to the movies than to take a Disney cruise!

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