Adventure Animation

'Moana' Film Review: A buoyant and heartfelt adventure for the whole family

November 23, 2016Ben MK

From Hercules to Mulan, Disney is no stranger to taking tales from the realm of mythology and bringing them to the big screen in larger-than-life fashion. That tradition proudly continues with Moana, a buoyant yarn rooted in the centuries-old stories of ancient Polynesia, which pairs a headstrong young heroine out to save her world with the shapeshifting demigod who unwittingly broke it.

The movie begins with a thrilling prologue depicting the story of Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a mischievous and valiant, but somewhat self-absorbed, demigod. Best known for such stupendous feats as restraining the sun and hauling up an entire island from the depths of the ocean, it's Maui's misguided quest to retrieve a magical stone known as the heart of Te Fiti that sets the story properly on its course. For no sooner does he do so does darkness descend upon the South Pacific, filling its waters with unspeakable monstrosities and unleashing a vengeful evil.

Fast forward 1,000 years, and we meet Moana (newcomer Auli'i Cravalho), who, from a very young age, has been enamored with the notion of exploring the open sea. Moana's father (Temuera Morrison), however, has other plans for her, as he's been grooming his daughter to be the next chief of their humble island of Motunui. It's not till Moana grows into a young woman that she realizes that the ocean has chosen her for a greater destiny; and when Motunui falls victim to a curse that threatens all life on the island, Moana embarks on a journey to save her people.

To do so, Moana must seek out and find Maui, who vanished into the sea after battling the lava demon Te Ka, and convince him to help her restore the heart of Te Fiti to its rightful place. Before they can do that, however, they'll first have to recover the one object that grants Maui his shapeshifting powers — his long-lost, magical fish hook, which was bestowed to Maui by the gods, and which he now suspects lies with a greedy, giant crustacean named Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), who dwells deep beneath the earth in Lalotai, the Realm of Monsters.

Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker and co-directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, Moana doesn't upend the feel-good formula that has come to define Disney's hand-drawn and computer-generated output for the last few decades. In fact, the film wholeheartedly embraces its animated heritage. But even though Moana doesn't break new ground — other than being absolutely gorgeous to behold — it's still fun and uplifting nonetheless, thanks to terrific songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, an endearing cast of characters and a joyfully self-aware sense of humor.

Likewise, Moana also fully embraces the heritage of its characters. For not only are the majority of the roles portrayed by actors of Polynesian descent, but everything else about the movie feels authentic and completely reverential towards the culture of the South Pacific. No doubt, it wouldn't be surprising to learn that the filmmakers required years of painstaking research to yield an outcome that feels this honest and heartfelt; but it's a small price to pay when the end result is a new family classic capable of withstanding the test of time.

Moana releases November 23rd, 2016 from Walt Disney Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 53 Mins.

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