“The ocean chose me for a reason.”
This impressive 107-minute animated adventure is based on stories from Polynesian mythology involving a goddess and a prideful demigod as a mortal island princess encounters them so she can save her civilization and fulfill her special destiny. A much desired stone of special powers (a.k.a. the goddess’s “heart”) creates varied motivations of the film’s characters.
Initially set on the small Polynesian island of Motunui, Moana is the title’s character voiced by Auli’i Cravalho in her film debut. This amazing protagonist (full name Moana Waialiki) is daughter of the chieftain, so she’s set to eventually inherit leadership of Motunui.
Family plays a big part in the story as Moana’s personal desires constantly conflict with her duties on the island. Termuera Morrison (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones) voices Chief Tui, Moana’s father. Singer/actress Nicole Scherzinger (TV’s The X Factor) voices Sina, while Rachel House (Whale vs Shark) voices Moana’s Gramma Tala. Broadway theater veteran and Hamilton original cast member Christopher Jackson provides Tui’s singing voice and Pittsburgh Steeler’s veteran NFL football player Troy Polamalu voices a villager.
The filmmakers create impressive emotional background stories for Chief Tui and Gramma Tala in a surprisingly short time that deeply affect Moana and her decisions. Sina endures heartbreaking decisions involving family loyalty and her motherly duties.
After Moana’s key discoveries and realizations, her quest to save her people begins. Enter action superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who voices the prideful demigod Maui. As Moana ventures into the unknown, she knows she requires Maui to guide her to the places she needs to go.
This unlikely pair strategizes, sails, and even sings their way through the South Pacific Ocean. Maui’s special powers (shape shifting, powerful strikes, etc.) are bound to a magical fishhook as his body tattoos tell the stories of all his adventures. Maui, an expert sailor (a.k.a. way-finder), eventually realizes Moana’s unique talents including the magical advantage of having the ocean itself as an ally.
The sixteen year old Moana does not need a prince and does not get one – a key difference compared to previous Disney princess films. Moana even says “I am not a princess” to which Maui answers “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
Their adventures include a scary trip to Lalotai, the Realm of Monsters, and a more comical ocean battle sequence with the Pygmy pirates called Kakamora. The giant lava monster Te Kā provides the ultimate, seemingly unwinnable challenge as Moana and Maui both reach key points in their character’s development.
The incredible settings are such an ambitious undertaking that this film has four directors. Ron Clements and John Musker direct with co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams. Clements and Musker previously teamed up to direct Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog and The Little Mermaid. Hall and Williams won an Oscar® for Big Hero 6 with Roy Conli.
Many of the Motunui island sequences impress just as much as the epic ocean arrays. One ceremonial sequence filled with realistic hut and the native people is particularly impressive. The excellent character animation even highlights the hairs on their skin. The ocean sequence highlights include some upside down perspective shots as well as the approach to a gigantic volcanic island. The filmmakers also have a separate animation team for hair and water.
Jemaine Clement (TV’s Flight of the Concords) voices Tamatoa, a giant coconut crab who has a memorable sequence that’s crucial to Moana and Maui’s continued quest. Alan Tudyk (I, Robot, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) voices the rooster HeiHei while Moana also has a pet pig named Pua.
The memorable music from Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina. Filmmakers wisely keep the same approach as 2013’s Frozen by using talents from great musicals to strongly bind the music with the story, written by eight filmmakers including all four directors, that has great themes on determination, selflessness and forgiveness among the fantasy elements.
The drums and chorus vocals easily provide the formidable emotional power of this stellar musical score. Maui’s “You’re Welcome” and Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” are definite highlights where the filmmakers match the masterful music with equally impressive visuals.
Disney 56th animated feature comes highly recommended and is rated PG for peril, some scary images, and brief thematic elements. Moana’s release with this year’s Zootopia marks the first time Walt Disney Animation Studios has released two feature films in one year since Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet in 2002. Be sure to stay after the ending credits for a bonus sequence.