Movie Review: ‘MOANA’ – The heart of the ocean

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

MOANA | 113 min | PG
Directed by: Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall, Chris Williams
Starring: Auli’i CravalhoDwayne JohnsonRachel House , Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk

Ron Clements and John Musker were part of the Disney Renaissance back in the late eighties/ early nineties. In fact, they ushered it in with THE LITTLE MERMAID. So it’s no wonder that they, along with co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams, are a part of the studio’s second wave of reinvigorating (and subversion thereof) the princess franchise, now with MOANA. The animated musical-action-adventure will leave you feeling encouraged, enraptured and empowered. It’s joyous, uplifting and flawless – fitting, as our heroine embodies the same qualities.

Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) has felt the siren call of the sea from a very young age. In fact, the ocean morphs into its own being, bestowing upon her the glowing green “heart of Te Fiti.” Her Gramma Tala (voiced by Rachel House) encourages her to follow her dreams, as legend has foretold the people of Mo’Tonui should return to their age-old, abandoned tradition of wayfinding and exploring the high seas. However,  Moana’s father Chief Tui (voiced by Temuera Morrison) has always discouraged her from leaving their perfect paradise, raising her to lead their people from the safety of the island. But a darkness is encroaching on the island, and it’s up to Moana to save them all. In order to do so, she must find demi-god Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and reunite him with his lost magical hook so he can deliver the jewel back to Te Fiti.  However, it’s not going to be as easy as that as the pair, along with stowaway Hei Hei (voiced by Alan Tudyk), must battle mystical sea beast/ ostentatious giant crab Tamatoa (voiced by Jemaine Clement), angry minion-like coconuts called “the Kakamora,” and the angriest of them all, lava monster Te Ka.

Tenacious teenager Moana (voice of Auliʻi Cravalho) recruits a demigod named Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson) to help her become a master wayfinder and sail out on a daring mission to save her people. Directed by the renowned filmmaking team of Ron Clements and John Musker, produced by Osnat Shurer, and featuring music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa‘i, “Moana” sails into U.S. theaters on Nov. 23, 2016.  ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Moana (voice of Auliʻi Cravalho) and Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson) in MOANA. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Considering we are dealing with strong heroine, the cinematic influences are similarly strong: The coco-nutty Kakamora segment is sublimely inspired by PRINCESS MONONOKE and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. The overarching search for your destiny on the open ocean is very reminiscent of WHALE RIDER. And from the protective father, to his daughter’s “Part Of Your World”-ish I-Want-Song “How Far I’ll Go” (which is reprised twice absolutely perfectly, the last making you weep buckets), Act One does a lot of borrowing of story/ music beats from Musker and Clements’ own THE LITTLE MERMAID. A few key elements from THE LION KING and SPIRITED AWAY waft in and out as well.

Songs courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i, and the score, courtesy of Mark Mancina, put the wind in the narrative’s sails. Maui’s big song and dance number, “You’re Welcome” is like something Genie would’ve sung in ALADDIN and celebrates different animation mediums. Tamatoa’s “Shiny” is a seventies-stomper that sounds like something David Bowie would have seductively warbled (hmm, like this). The island sound of Moana’s fictional world feels real and tangibly warm. But perhaps the film’s biggest asset is the animation, which takes this dream-like fairy tale to the next level. The world is immersive, transportive and epic in scope. We are invested in our heroine’s journey every step of the way thanks to the awe-inducing precision of this team of animators. It solidifies this as an instant classic.

Listen, the soaring high MOANA gives you is worth abandoning all cynicism and real world problems at the theater door. I could sit here and poke holes in some of its logic, but it’s simply not worth doing so because of what – and who – this film is destined to inspire.

MOANA opens on November 23.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.