Out on the ocean, with sea on all sides,
The wind as your engine, the stars as your guides,
You are your own island, though roaming between
The land you called home and another unseen.
To blaze the blue courses no human has plied,
You must navigate more than tempest and tide.
To know destination and where you’ll return,
Your place in the ocean of life you must learn.
MPAA rating: PG
Most would agree that 2016 was a strong year for Disney (and animation in general), releasing two movies in the same year and both nominated for Best Animated Feature: Zootopia, which I loved, and Moana, which I wish I loved more. I’ve waited to review Moana because I wanted to see it again to see if I liked it better than my initial viewing, and I did, but not nearly as much as everyone else. While others are ranking it among Disney’s best, I’ve got it tucked in the middle of the “I like it” section, and I’m not even completely sure why.
The common complaint is that Moana recycles plot elements and the stern authoritarian father figure from The Little Mermaid, also directed by Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker, but that didn’t bother me much. There’s plenty else to set it apart, including the obvious subversion that King Trident wanted to keep Ariel in the sea and away from things of the land, while Moana’s father (Temuera Morrison, who played Jango Fett in Star Wars: Episode II) tries to keep her on their island of Motonui and away from the sea. Literally chosen by the sentient ocean to return the fabled Heart of Te Fiti and stop a spreading darkness, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) sets out on her own (not unlike Mulan) to find the shapeshifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and return the Heart.
Before I get into my nitpicking, I must give credit where credit is due. The animation is a new CGI high for Disney, with special attention paid to the lush island greenery and the photorealistic water, and I don’t think any movie since Finding Nemo has contained this much stunningly animated water. It’s a technical marvel, and one more sign that Disney is handily keeping up with Pixar’s animation quality. The music is also well done, courtesy of Hamilton’s Lin Manuel-Miranda, score composer Mark Mancina, and South Pacific musician Opetaia Foa’i. I still think it’s not as memorable as past Disney soundtracks, yet most of the songs have gotten stuck in my head at some point. My least favorite has to be the still lyrically clever “Shiny,” sung by the oddly accented crab monster Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), but Moana’s “How Far I Go” and Maui’s “You’re Welcome” are soon-to-be-classic highlights, making me wish there were more musical numbers throughout.
I’m still trying to figure out why Moana didn’t hit me as it did so many others. I don’t think it’s the Pacific island pagan mythology, since Disney has explored other culture’s religions in the past, like the ancestors of Mulan and the spirits of Brother Bear. So what then? The best answer I can give is that I simply didn’t connect with the setting and, by extension, the story. I personally have no love for tropical islands (I used to live in Florida and moved to get away from that kind of climate), so that could be a factor, whereas I found it easy to enjoy Brother Bear since I love Alaska and its mountain scenery. Likewise, as strong as the main two characters were, I felt there was something lacking in the script, perhaps in the humor department. Moana’s repeated self-motivation got old after a while, and the reason for why the ocean chose her, a question that haunts her throughout, is somewhat glossed over in favor of stirring self-confidence. And why did the ocean, controlling itself like the water column from The Abyss, only help her at some points and not others?
As with so many of my less-than-positive reviews, I don’t want to make it sound as if I didn’t like it. I did. Moana is a solid addition to the Disney canon, boasting colorful and beautifully rendered animation and outstanding voicework. It took some time, but I really enjoyed the dynamic between Moana and Maui and how it grew along their voyage, as well as his tattoo mini-Maui. There’s much to praise, particularly in how Disney has created an admirable dark-skinned heroine and independent role model for kids, much more successfully than in The Princess and the Frog. All I can say is that it’s not one of my favorites, and I understand if people disagree with my gripes. I love Brother Bear and don’t get why some people hate it. One of the many great things about Disney’s canon is how varied it is, and for every lukewarm entry, there’s one to absolutely love. Moana does continue Disney’s streak of winners, but I thought Zootopia was better and deserved its Best Animated Feature win. But that’s just me.
Best lines: (Moana) “Okay, first, I am not a princess. I’m the daughter of the chief.”
(Maui) “Same difference.”
(Maui) “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”
(Moana, as Tamatoa tries to take her necklace) “Don’t! That’s my gramma’s!”
(Tamatoa, the crab monster, mocking) “’That’s my gramma’s!’ I ate my Gramma! And it took a week, ’cause she was absolutely humongous.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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