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Moana (2016) Movie Review by John Walsh

MOANA

Directors: Ron Clements, Don Hall
Writers: Jared Bush (screenplay), Ron Clements (story by)
Stars: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House

Disney’s latest animated movie is a charming, enjoyable, oceanic-musical and fun take on Polynesian culture. Moana is the newest addition in a long line of ‘princess’ movies from the company, though the titular protagonist would protest at such aspersions against her.

Beginning with a lore building backstory come legend, courtesy of Gramma Tala (Rachel House), on the heroics and mysterious disappearance of Maui after his stealing of Te Fiti’s heart. We are then given a short, but incredibly adorable scene with a young Moana who, even as a sprightly toddler, seems fascinated with the ocean and it appears to call to her too. The small, jade coloured heart, briefly entering her grasp as the ocean peels back before her to offer a stunning, aquarium style view at passing by sea life. Her father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), quickly retrieves his young daughter, however, and Where We Are, the first of many catchy songs, kicks in whilst a montage of an ever older Moana trying her best to escape the island and continually being thwarted by her increasingly exasperated father plays out.

Following the short montage, a now older Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is seen reluctantly carrying out her duties as the chieftains daughter, but all the while still harbouring a strong desire to be out on the ocean. Her father has imposed a ban on leaving the lagoon that surrounds Motonui and refuses to lax it even as the crops are failing and fish population is dropping dramatically. Moana attempts to leave the island, with it almost ending in disaster, but it’s not until she has a glimpse at her people’s ancestry via a vision, in a hidden cave, full of boats that she becomes positive that her destiny lies beyond the island. And she is given the encouragement required when Gramma Tala, her grandmother, who was always prompting her to follow these desires, is suddenly struck down and on her death bed, tells her to leave quickly.

Singing the ear worm inducing, How Far I’ll Go, she successfully navigates her way out of the lagoon and heads on her quest to find Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti. It doesn’t take her long to find him either, after her ship capsizes in a heavy storm, both Moana and the idiotic, crazy rooster who unwittingly got dragged into the whole affair, wash up on a desert island. Initially she curses her luck and berates the ocean for its lack of help, but then the realisation suddenly dawns that the island she’s ended up on is inhabited by the Demi-god himself. Maui (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), as it turns out is rather full of himself and after singing the equally catchy, You’re Welcome, a song dedicated to all his acts of heroism and seeming unselfish deeds, he quickly locks a temporarily befuddled Moana in a cave, before attempting a quick escape. Ignoring his conscience, which manifests itself in the form of a mini Maui tattoo on his chest, he sets off. Moana is not to be outdone this easily, however, escaping the cave and finally ending up on the boat with the aid of the ocean after Maui threw her off a few times.

What follows is a fairly linear adventure, but there’s more than enough excitement and the pacing is such that there’s rarely, if ever, a dull moment to be had, which is no mean feat in a film centred on a small craft in the middle of an ocean. There’s a thrilling run in with crazy, coconut pirates, swinging on ropes from all angles, and travelling on ships which have more than a passing resemblance to the towering vehicles seen in Mad Max. A tense battle to retrieve Maui’s magical hook with Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement), a huge jewel encrusted crab with a penchant for shiny objects, at the bottom of the ocean and who taunts the listless looking Demi-god whilst singing the Bowie tribute, Shiny. And finally, an epic showdown (or should I say two showdowns?) with Te ka; a huge, lava creature that desires the heart for itself and stalks the entrance to the island, denying access.

There’s a couple of standouts in this film, namely Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson. Moana wasn’t your archetypical Disney princess by any means and Cravalho brought the independent and empowered, young character to life beautifully. Johnson delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen from him as the immensely likeable and charming Maui, and his character has the most development over the course of the film too. Initially giving off arrogant, obstinate vibes, we are given an insight into his past and witness him go through a crisis in confidence as he struggles to regain his shapeshifting powers (there’s plenty of laughs to be had at his failed attempts), before his bullish temperament softens and he regains his powers to help Moana complete her quest. Jermaine Clement’s brief part as Tamatoa is decent and his scene is a highlight, whilst Temuera Morrison and Rachel House are strong early on as Chief Tui and Gramma Tala. Shout out to Alan Tudyk as Hei Hei the Rooster too. The character obviously doesn’t have any spoken parts, but it’s mere presence is great and the antics it got up to were hilarious.

Visually, the film is an absolute masterpiece. The standout moments for me were the battle with the Kakamora, the beautiful looking water and the sentient wave which popped up in times of need or hilarity, the little mini Maui tattoo and the absolutely beautiful scene with Tamatoa on the ocean floor, with the wondrously luminous algae. I thought Disney did a fantastic and respectful job of portraying the Polynesian culture. Musically, the songs were catchy, well written and fitted the mood perfectly throughout. Kudos to Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Disney seems to have developed a real knack recently for having strong, leading, female characters that standout on their own merit without any need for a romantic element and they’ve managed it again here. John Musker and Ron Clements are no strangers to damn good Disney films either (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and the inspiration from those two films in particular can definitely be felt here. Overall I enjoyed the film. I’m not the biggest musical fan in the world and animation isn’t a genre I tend to be drawn to either, but Moana is a beautifully crafted film and well worthy of a watch.

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