After a rather lackluster lineup of films in the 2000’s, Disney has performed a 180 with a resurgence of modern-day classics from Walt Disney Animation Studios. With the pressure at an all-time high, the success leans on “Moana” to carry the torch into greatness.
In the village of Motonui, life has flourished for generations as the people have maintained a life without change. Since a young child, Chief Tui’s daughter Moana has gravitated towards legends spoken by her grandmother and dreamt of venturing the forbidden waters beyond the reef. It isn’t until the island begins to grow unfertile when Moana must set sail in search of the demigod Maui in order to save her people facing peril.
“Moana” isn’t just another animated movie that works as a virtual babysitter; apparent through the recently given admiration- most infamously from the people of Polynesian decent. Having a cultural background which celebrates the past and present of the people of the south pacific, “Moana” is a true testament of a rich and proud culture. Much of this is due to the months of onsite research performed by directors John Musker and Ron Clements. Focusing on oceanic voyaging, the pivotal component of Polynesians, the film surpasses just about every previous Disney film’s attempt to honor a culture. From capturing the essence and importance of family, traditions and legends- Moana has the ability to pull the heart strings of people with a Polynesian upbringing. Though “Moana” has many elements centric around the Polynesian culture, the film can be enjoyed by anyone through its morals and characters.
No matter how culturally accurate a film is, the weight still lands upon the leading character. Luckily for Disney, they struck a goldmine with 16-year-old and Hawaiʻi native Auliʻi Cravalho. Having the pleasure to meet her first hand at a Press Conference held last year, I was impressed by not just her maturity but respect and understanding of the cultural importance of the role. Without question, Cravalho incorporated her own personality within the Disney heroine that children will gravitate towards for generations. Moana is a character whom is driven by determination as she embraces her curiosity, making her reminiscent to other Disney character that break implemented boundaries as they choose to become what they yearn for, no matter political affiliation, family values and gender. Cravalho’s voice work is so impeccable, that the illusion of a cartoon character evaporates as Moana comes alive from beginning to end. Midway through the first act, Auliʻi’s full talent is revealed with songs like the Oscar contender “How Far I’ll Go,” that showcase range and full vocal control.
It isn’t just Moana’s film, as the demigod Maui has as much of a crucial role as the title character. Voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Maui has an undeniable sense of swagger, showmanship and humor; as a result of Johnson’s larger than life personality. Once again, the Rock proves he’s a Jack of all trades with his musical performance of “You’re Welcome”- a song that calls back to song-writer Lin-Manual Miranda’s Hamilton. Even with his character flaws, selfishness and fear, Maui still manages to be a character that’ll put a smile on your face.
On the surface, the film’s soundtrack may seem like an ordinary catalog of music numbers for some, but the more replays, the more it begins to creep up the charts of Disney’s best. “Moana” finds most of its success with the inclusion of Opetaia Foaʻi’s group Te Vaka and a Fijian choir, as it not only brings out the South Pacific in the film, but gives a feeling of something much greater- passion from the artists that honor tradition and their ancestral heritage. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work on the soundtrack also strengthens the musical power, having songs that both tell a captivating story and remain catchy.
The decision to convert from traditional animation to computer-generated-images was described as a “necessity” by Musker and Clements, as CGI gives more life to the more sculpted look that they were striving for. This transition really shows for “Moana” might be Disney’s best-looking films to ever released. Even with the use of CGI, the animators still find a way to incorporate 2D animation through a retelling of ancient legends and Maui’s living ink tattooed on his body; acting like a reflection of animation traditions that made Disney the powerhouse they are today. From photorealistic lighting effects that reflect upon characters and water to little details such as a character’s chest moving from a breath of air, there’s no denying that “Moana” is one of the year’s most visually striking.
When the combination of animation, cultural importance and music to sink in, “Moana” has the ability to not just inspire but produce an emotional level for those who welcome it- having several goosebumps inducing scenes throughout the film. “Moana” has shown that the happiest place on earth isn’t a theme park, but what resides within us- our hearts.