Movie Review: “Moana” – Classic Disney Fare

Written by Matt Butler December 02, 2016

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Moana is a progressive character stuck in a conventional story. She’s an ambitious, curvy, adventure-seeking POC with no interest in finding a Prince Charming. She’s everything Tumblr’s asked for in a Disney Princess. But Moana the film is far more than Moana the character. It’s a new corner of the Disney globe that’s as visually revolutionary as it is narratively customary.

When her paradisiacal island home begins to deteriorate, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) heeds the beckon call of The Heart of the Ocean, a stoney gem stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). Now in Moana’s hands, she must return the gem to its rightful place to restore balance and save her home. With the help of the reluctant Maui, a useless rooster (Alan Tudyk), and the ocean itself, Moana journeys across land, sea, and more sea to fulfill her destiny.

It’s a hero’s journey, the most rudimentary protagonist quest, but also the most exhausted. I don’t know how accustomed everyone is to this story, but it’s everywhere (Star Wars, The Matrix, Lion King, Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, etc.). And why wouldn’t it be? It’s a story as old as the Bible. But as skilled as Disney is with tales as old as time, there’s still a calling for something new. A twist on the tale.

“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”

Moana seems aware of its Disney-esque conventionality, calling itself out on its established gimmick of funny animal sidekicks. It is odd though, how Moana’s pet pig, seen in the teaser and several promotional posters, is ultimately missing from 90% of the film. Not a huge detriment, but still a curious omission. It’s almost as though Disney wanted the pig on the poster for cuteness appeal alone. I won’t make any further assumptions, but I think it’s safe to say that Pua the Pig is to Moana as Captain Phasma is to The Force Awakens.

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Surprisingly, what defeats Moana is the same thing that empowers it, the ocean. The prologue of the film introduces Moana to the sea. A character in and of itself that appears before her as the curve of a wave. As the toddling Moana walks through the sand, the water bends and sways her through a trail of shells, leading her through a freeform aquarium. This is Moana at its most inventive and enthralling (sav of course the brilliant Maui tattoo animation). Needless to say, Disney owes itself to its labor-of-love animators. They do for Moana’s water what they did for Frozen’s snow: they make it real. Touchable.

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Setting aside the astounding technicals, this introduction creates an essential problem with the film: a lack of stakes. Moana’s friendship with the water is a novel concept, but it also diminishes the conflict. It’s obvious that the writers were aware of this too. Moana is 75% comedy and only 25% drama. And that’s fine, because the comedy is largely fun, and Johnson and Cravalho know how to have fun with it. But when the second act is over, and Moana reaches her lowest point, you realize that she never would’ve gotten as far as she did without the help of the ocean. It’s a story where the actions of the character are secondary to the motion of the plot, leaving Moana the character swept away by Moana the story. In a movie all about self-discovery, it’s hard to remember much about Moana other than what’s written in the prophecy.

“The ocean chose me for a reason.”

Lastly, the songs. Moana’s music blends the tribal spirit of The Lion King with the feel-good vibes of Frozen. Most of it is standard Disney fare. The ‘This is how things are’ song. The ‘I want’ song. The comedic secondary character song. But it’s the villain song, ‘Shiny’ that steals the show. Specifically because it’s so needless and random, much like the comedy of its Flight of the Conchords singer, Jemaine Clement. Since Tomatoa, is only a roadblock villain (ie. in one scene, gone the next), the song does nothing for the plot. It exists exclusively because Lin-Manuel Miranda wants to do a tribute to the funkadelic styles of David Bowie, and Clement has already proven himself the best stand-in.

If you’re hopeful for some hummable songs, Moana delivers. Just like the film itself, the music’s a sweet enough treat, even if it doesn’t have a long-standing aftertaste. Though, with how most everyone got sick and tired of Frozen, maybe that’s all for the better.

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And that’s really my strongest hope for Moana, that we don’t go crazy for it. Moana isn’t the game-changer Frozen is because it isn’t trying to be. Frozen shows that Disney still knows how to adapt its classic formula to a modern audience. Moana exists to prove this claim consistent, but it sacrifices its possibility to be as grand, adventurous and exciting as its visuals suggest. Moana’s conventionality is not a result of hack screenwriters, but calculated, time-tested formulas.

Moana was made to be what a family audience could expect and handle. And while that makes for fine entertainment, it isn’t all that thrilling. Moana has plenty of laughs, but it spends so much time in its feel-good comedy that it barely has time to delve into anything deeper. Which only adds insult to injury for a story centered in the middle of the ocean.

My Rating: 7/10

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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