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Moana - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
cinema_holic
cinema_holic
Moana
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Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Animation: A-



Moana is an odd delight, an animated feature full of dazzling color and epic storytelling that also features the ocean itself as a character. Fin-like arms will poke out of the ocean toward the titular heroine, recalling the tentacle water from the 1989 film The Abyss -- something no kid watching this movie will remember, just old farts like myself. But in Moana, this ocean-arm will reach out and touch, or pick up a person, or even give a high-five. It's actually kind of distracting in its weirdness, but the overall story easily pulls you back in.

"Moana" is not pronounced the way most Westerners would imagine, like "moan-a," but rather "Mo-ana." It's a word that means "ocean" in most Polynesian languages, and here it's the name of the young girl who is destined to be her village chief. And something noteworthy here: Moana is only the second "Disney princess" (after Brave) ever not to have a love interest. And like Brave, Moana makes some strange storytelling choices. One that's more refreshing than strange, though, is that Moana's father takes it for granted that, as his eldest child, she will one day be Chief. He references his father being Chief before him, and his father before him, and so on -- but no one draws attention to the fact that Moana is a girl in this context. That she will be Chief is just taken for as a given.

Traveling beyond the reef is considered fatally dangerous, and of course Moana is drawn to the ocean. Her dad won't even let her get on boats, which frankly seems a little batshit for people living on an island. But this is the source of conflict between Moana and her father, who wants her to focus on preparation and training to become the chief of their village.

That all seems pretty straightforward, but then the stuff of Maori legend comes into the picture, and that's how we get Dwayne Johnson as the voice of the demigod Maui. (This I found slightly confusing, with "Maui" clearly conjuring up images of Hawaii -- but this movie is really more about legends tied to New Zealand. They're still both Polynesian, of course.) Maui is a demigod rather than a regular god because he came from human parents, but as Maui tells it here, he's was given powers by the gods. Specifically, a magic fish hook he can use to shape shift.

Legend has it that Maui stole the heart of island goddess Te Fiti, then lost in the ocean along with his fish hook after a confrontation with the lava demon Te Kā. When the resulting curse reaches Moana's island, diseasing coconuts and making fish scarce, Moana discovers she must travel across the ocean to find Maui and make him return the heart to Te Fiti. She finds him on a small island where he spent a millennium contemplating his own greatness, and thus begins what could be called an animated road trip on the water, just the two of them.

Well, them and Moana's hilariously moronic stowaway rooster. Moana also has an adorable pet pig at home that anyone with any sense will be disappointed to discover gets far too little screen time. We so wanted the pig also to be a stowaway! But, we're stuck with the rooster. But the rooster is still a kick, who easily gets the most laughs in the movie.

Maui gets a few himself, and Dwayne Johnson even sings! Yes, Moana is also a musical, in the mold of the classic Disney features of the late eighties and early nineties (hardly a surprise, given that co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker also did The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, among others). I'm not sure Moana will be remembered as indelibly as those earlier films have been, but it certainly moves storytelling conventions forward in a way that, say, The Little Mermaid did not. It's certainly nice that we're finally seeing more movies about girls whose success is not defined by their getting a man. Maui is clearly a man in Moana's life, but he's just a friend and they have to work together. And the songs here are plenty fun -- with several great, dazzling sequences accompanying them -- but in spite of getting a boost from contributions by Lin Manuel-Miranda, none are instant classics.

Movies like Brave and Frozen and Moana don't represent an endgame so much as a shift in direction that is what animated motion pictures need, at least when it comes to the historical ideologies of princesses. They all benefit from a modern sophistication but also suffer slightly from lapses in storytelling logic that become more glaring the more you think about them. The solution to that is not to think about them! Or at least, don't take the movies too seriously -- they're just movies, after all. And one thing is guaranteed: kids aren't going to give half a shit about such details. They'll just be mesmerized by the spectacular animation onscreen, as well as the basic story in its simplest form -- and rightly so. Moana is the latest in a recent trend of spectacularly animated tales of self-sufficient heroines, and these days in particular, there should be no complaints about that.

Dwayne Johnson and Auli'i Cravalho learn to work together in MOANA.


Overall: B+
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