Movie Review: Moana

Moana has a typical action adventure narrative revolving around a heroic quest, but its bioluminescent colors, vivid animation, catchy music, likeable characters, and well written themes of self-discovery and validation makes it a good follow-up to Frozen.

Moana, a spirited teenager and born navigator, sets sail from the ancient South Pacific islands of Oceania in search of a fabled island. During her incredible journey, she teams up with her hero, the legendary demi-god Maui, to traverse the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous sea creatures, breathtaking underworlds and ancient folklore. [Walt Disney Studios]

It seems that Disney has earned enough positive karma points with its female centric films to protect itself from the menace of 2016 and scores another thanksgiving blockbuster hit, busting the conventional wisdom that female centered movies don’t make money and its hard to make a movie without a non-white cast.

That isn’t to say that Moana just got lucky.

The writers made an effort to deviate away from tropes that plague Disney movies by doing away with a love interest to focus on a heroine’s journey. Moana’s struggles is easily relatable to any young person girl or boy – How Far I’ll Go (the new earworm next to Let it Go) conveys the internal conflict between conforming and wanting something more, as well as doubting oneself while still keeping a little bit of hope that anything is possible. Unlike the typical animated lead, she isn’t simplistically rebellious or naive. This combination of beyond the surface characterization matched with catchy tunes extends to the rest of the narrative, lending it a surprising depth despite its slapstick humor. The supporting characters, even the villains, have their own flaws and motivations.

The culturally appropriate casting is a perfect fit, which makes Moana the first POC casted movie with nary a white male in sight. The lead is played by a teen and the most recognizable actor is of Samoan descent.

The world building here is no Pixar, but the animation looks good. The crafty use of bioluminescent colors, vivid palette and ample details make the setting engaging enough.

As with stories portraying a non-white culture from the hands of a corporation who wants to make a blockbuster kids movie, there are bound to be liberties taken. There has been mixed reactions, ranging from affronted to begrudgingly tolerant (spoilers inside) to elated.

The creative tweaks to the stereotypical Disney narrative doesn’t entirely takeaway from a typical hero quest and female empowerment cliches. As always Disney tends to reuse ideas from elsewhere – Chief Tui is no different to King Triton and demigod Maui is reminiscent of the shape shifting wisecracking Genie.

Unfortunately there is not much to expect when culture is commercialized. However, it can still be said that Moana accomplished what it set out to do as an inspiring and entertaining movie with a female lead.

In the end, as the story finishes with a message of being true to oneself, Moana also teaches us that there is no good or bad people (or monsters in this case), just beings trying to deal with their own complexes. This fully realized theme, catchy songs thanks to collaboration of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mark Mancina, and likeable characters, make Moana a solidly entertaining movie that’s also a historic albeit flawed step to diversity in animation.

My Rating: 8/10


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