At last, the Disney animated movie with Hawaiian ties, themes and characters has arrived. Despite the intentions to be progressive in character development and authentic in its depiction of Polynesian culture, history and mythology, it’s still a definitively Disney creation. Like “The Princess and the Frog,” the efforts to be different sport mixed results.
The story concerns Moana, the daughter of a Polynesian chief, who displays an adventurous spirit and yearns to explore the ocean. Her father forbids it but Moana’s encouraging grandmother and the spirits of her ancestors nudge her to find her true calling beyond her island home.
As gorgeous as the introductory scenes are, offering a refreshing depiction of Polynesian island life, the first act of “Moana” is business as usual. Moana’s restless nature and her uneasy relationship with her father is right out of “The Little Mermaid” and “Pocahontas.” Moana’s embracing her uncertain destiny feels like “Mulan” and a bit of “Beauty and the Beast.” Her adorable animal sidekicks are, likewise, cute and funny but overly familiar. The Disney animation story formula is working over time here.
The stranger “Moana” gets, the better it becomes. Once Dwayne Johnson’s demigod Maui becomes a central character, the movie takes off. Johnson’s character turns out to have as many emotional layers as Moana’s and his performance, both comic and touching, is the film’s best. There’s a hilarious battle with pirates who sport a bizarre appearance (the scene feels like an elaborate parody of “Waterworld”). A sequence depicting an underwater world has vibrant, surreal visuals and a funny vocal performance by Jemaine Clement as a villainous crab (though his one song is a real dud). The big climax and its glorious resolution offer knockout visuals that match and surpass most live action fantasies this year. When the focus is on the rip roaring action and creating the scope of the film’s fantastic world, “Moana” never steers wrong.
Despite the careful research and contribution of experts on Polynesian culture, “Moana” can’t escape seeming like an old product given a shiny new look. At one point, Maui notes that Moana is obviously a princess, as she’s the daughter of a king and has an animal sidekick. It’s a funny line but he’s absolutely right. We’ve seen this before so much, a character in a Disney movie is now commenting on how awfully Disney-esque his co-star is!
There are a few songs that induce chicken skin but the problem with the musical numbers is that there’s too many of them. The composers are Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i and “Hamilton” superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda, who have created a stack of busy, wordy songs that sound ready for the inevitable “Disney’s Moana- The Musical” on Broadway. On film, the songs are so frequent, they sometimes feel like an interruption rather than an enhancement. I love “We Know the Way” and the reprise of “How Far I’ll Go” but other songs aren’t as memorable or catchy.
First timer and Oahu resident, Auli’i Cravalho, voices the title role and her performance is among the most impressive film debuts of the year. Moana is a demanding character, both in the emotional and vocal requirements, and Cravalho nails it.
Johnson is to this movie what Robin Williams is to “Aladdin.” His work is so special, I can’t imagine his wonderful character taking shape as perfectly without him. There’s also the moment where Maui swings into action and declares, “It’s Maui Time!” Mahalo for the free publicity, Dwayne!
I scanned the end credits for local talent and recognized a few. Oahu-based Dr. Vilsoni Hereniko, the writer/director of “The Land Has Eyes,” the first-ever film from Fiji, is credited as a consultant. Veteran actor Branscombe Richmond is a vocal contributor. The best local connection I could find happened early into the movie: in the opening scenes, we see a cluster of Polynesian children listening to stories. I could hear a gasp from a group of children in the movie theater, as, for the first time, they were seeing a representative of themselves on the big screen. It was a beautiful thing to hear.
–originally published in Maui Time Weekly