Movie Review: Moana Masters the Disney Magic

Review for the new Disney animated musical "Moana", opening in theatres November 23rd, 2016.
Movie Review: Moana Masters the Disney Magic

About the Author

Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins is a thespian and performer who has worked with theatre, film, and TV across Ontario. He comes from Campbellton, NB, and has lived in North Oakville nearly 20 years. Currently, he studies Journalism at Sheridan College. Twitter: @MrTyCollins

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Praise be to the gods – or at least, the Pacific demigods – for the magnificent, sweeping epic Moana. Brimming with beauty, exquisite nature, fun, and a captivating soul, Disney flexes every (tattooed?) muscle with it’s latest animated classic.

And with Moana on the open sea, it joins greats like Zootopia, Dory, and Kubo to highlight 2016 as a banner year for animation in Hollywood. The excellent quality and care from Buena Vista this year has led to it’s best year ever at the box office, and Moana will surely keep the tide rolling.

Exactly 27 years ago, now legendary directors Jon Musker and Ron Clements made their feature debuts with Disney on The Little Mermaid, seen today as a landmark both for the studio and the genre of family entertainment. In fact, 1989’s Mermaid is noted today by film historians as the beginning of Disney’s renaissance that would inspire the pair to create movies like Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog.

Today, Moana shines as a brilliant mark on their defining career for what the movie musical could be. And yet, through the gravitas and experience the directors (and writers) bring to the table, their latest film is bracingly original. Here they use tools and dramatic devices refreshing to the Disney brand.

Instead of fairytales or classic European folklore, Moana finds inspiration from legends of Polynesian circa 500-1000 BC (mixed with some contemporary zoology and adventure). When a life-sucking curse threatens the safety and life of her pacific island, chieftain daughter Moana (newcomer Auli’l Cravalho) embarks on a quest to save her people and their home.

The story proceeds to showcase her journey across the Pacific Ocean, hunt for the vivacious demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), and to her own embarrassment, learn to sail a canoe. Maybe standard as an adventure story, while it doesn’t surprise in structure, the beating heart proves cathartic.

Photo credit: Buena Vista Pictures.

Photo credit: Buena Vista Pictures.

The real star, despite the deft direction, is newcomer Auli’l Cravalho as princess Moana. She’s an outstanding character with her focus on purpose and identity, without a prince anywhere on the horizon (literally). Carvalho (celebrating her 16th birthday this week) infuses extraordinary maturity and focus in her voice to create a fascinating lead.

Johnson’s Maui is an affable mentor and charismatic hero, allowing for great chemistry and comedic potential for Cravalho. Their teamwork carries the film almost entirely on their shoulders, but there’s zero insincerity in the script, and so the charm comes in spades.

In a grand Disney tradition,the storytelling features the longest list of pantomime characters ever built. A really stupid chicken, an adorable young pig named Pua, the evil coconut warriors, and a lava monster who totally rocks. Even the ocean itself is a friend to the seafaring princess to-be.

Speaking of the ocean, Musker and Clements have ventured into CGI for the first time after a lifetime with traditional hand-drawn animation, and the results are stunning. The images are sharp, and every detail is flowing with life. The colour palette is exquisite to look at, and the Pacific vistas are a visual treat.

Finally – the Disney musical – can sink or swim on the music. Mark Mancina gives an epic, sweeping score a la John Williams, but it’s the polynesian choral strands of Opetaia Foa’i and the razor-sharp lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) that bring a one-two punch of freshness to the sound.

All these elements blend together with easy seamlessness, and mostly flow with entertaining spirit. So much of the movie focuses on how we look at ourselves and abilities to give us value as people, but also the value of heart in defining our history.

Disney’s history is as captivating as Moana’s soaring aspirations, both as a movie and character. This is a brave animated success that rewards audiences with everything that makes the animated musical great, and why Disney continues to dominate this recipe; however, traditional it may be.

As Maui cynically remarks, “You wear a dress and have an animal sidekick. That makes you a princess.” Don’t be fooled by these met prerequisites; Moana offers progressive ideas and loads of fun for one of the best comedies and adventures you’ll see this year.

Moana
3 1/2 out of 4 Stars

PG, 113 minutes, Animated Musical Adventure.
Directed by Jon Musker and Ron Clements.
Starring Auli’l Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Now Playing at Film.Ca Cinemas, Cineplex Winston Churchill, and Cineplex Oakville & VIP.

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