Moana: The Disney Machine Keeps Rolling

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Moana Plot Summary:

One thousand years ago, the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, creating a cursed darkness that has slowly spread throughout the islands. Now, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the next chief of the island of Motunui, must find Maui and return the heart to save her home from being destroyed.

With Disney being such a cultural touchstone, there’s always going to be a lot of excitement whenever a new movie comes out. That goes double when it happens to be a new princess movie, the company’s most popular staple since their very first movie. And while Disney rarely makes a truly bad movie, that very consistency can make their movies prone to disappointment over relatively minor flaws. So to say that Moana had a lot to live up to would be a huge understatement. But despite all that pressure, Disney has managed to deliver yet again. Moanais not only a great movie, it’s some of the best work Disney has done in years.

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Of course, between being a Disney princess movie and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s involvement, the music has been one of the most hotly anticipated elements, and for good reason. The soundtrack, a collaboration between Miranda, Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa’i, is a pure delight. Avid Hamilton fans will easily be able to pick out Miranda’s influence, from the complicated internal rhymes to the fast-paced rap break in Maui’s exuberant introductory song. Foa’i, meanwhile, has suffused most of the music with South Pacific influences that give them a unique sound distinguished from past Disney songs. They may not be quite as instantly catchy as the songs from Frozen due to being a little more musically complex, but they’re undeniably excellent and should be a staple of future Disney sing-a-longs.

he cast may be small, but it packs a lot of talent. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s incredible charisma and expressive eyebrows (meticulously mapped onto his animated counterpart) are well-documented by now, and he proves equally adept at conveying the movie’s more serious moments. Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement has a scene-stealing turn as the villainous coconut crab Tamatoa, and instantly catapults himself into the annals of memorable Disney villains with a Bowie-esque ballad. Yet it’s newcomer Auli’i Cravalho who puts in the most impressive performance. As the main character, the bulk of the movie is on her shoulders, and she handles it admirably. She is every bit the equal of her famous co-star, her chemistry with Johnson making every interaction between Moana and Maui a treat. And she makes the yearning Moana feels in her heart come to life in every scene, ensuring that we not only understand Moana but feel that same yearning right with her.

Given the reputation and massive budget of Disney, no one should expect the visuals to be anything less than stunning, and yet they still manage to impress. The South Pacific setting allows for many a beautiful, sun-dappled isle to be shown off, but that’s far from all the visuals have to offer. An early scene has a frantic, Mad Max-inspired chase through the massive warships of a band of diminutive pirates. Another takes us to the dark, neon-lit Land of Monsters under the ocean. And in the most interesting technical innovation, Maui’s many tattoos come to life through 2D animation, providing a different stylized representation of his stories that give a different feel for his legendary exploits. It all looks fantastic, and helps make it easy to get drawn into Moana‘s world.

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There’s plenty of movies that use great visuals to paper over poor writing, but fortunately that’s not the case with Moana. There’s no denying that it fits into your typical Disney mold: a young girl going on a heroic quest to save her home where she learns the importance of being herself and following her heart. Yet rather than feeling tired or unoriginal, it manages to put a fresh spin on this old story that makes it still resonate. Part of this is small tweaks and self-aware pokes at the old formula. Moana indignantly insists she’s not a princess despite being the daughter of a chief and having an animal sidekick, and said sidekick Heihei (Alan Tudyk) is a dumb-as-rocks rooster rather than a plucky, adorable companion. Part of it is the sheer heart put into the movie, a commitment to telling this story that feels earnest rather than just another churning of the Disney machine. And part of it is in the diversity of its setting, something that Disney has rarely been so successful at.

In movies like Mulanand Aladdin, Disney has drawn on the myths and aesthetics of other cultures. Yet while the resulting movies are certainly excellent, they don’t really feel very particular to the cultures they are theoretically based on. It feels more like simply where these movies happen to be set. Not so with Moana. The culture of the South Pacific suffuses the movie from top to bottom, from the myths and legends it’s based on, to the sound and style of the music, right down to the dances that the characters do. It feels like a real exposure to the culture of the South Pacific in miniature that so few other Disney movies have managed, and that makes it feel so much more interesting than the basic structure of its story might lead you to believe.

Moana is not only an instant classic, it manages to fuse the best of what makes a typical Disney movie with new elements drawn from another culture to create something that feels both familiar and new. In times like these, that’s not just good entertainment. Exposing the audience to cultures which some of us are not familiar with and showing how we’re both similar and unique in our own ways is a vital function that entertainment has always been well-poised to accomplish. That Disney has achieved it so wildly successfully deserves all the praise in the world.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Chris Diggins is a staff writer and incorrigible layabout for The Pop Break. He usually reviews TV and movies, although he sometimes writes ludicrously long pieces of critical analysis and badgers the editors to publish it. He cannot be stopped.