Unless you’ve been living under a rock (not THE Rock), you’ve probably seen some sort of promotional material for Moana, the newest Disney animated feature. Whenever Disney releases a movie, their marketing and hype are dialed up to the max, and more often than not that hype is well founded. Disney has a history of making quality movies that may have familiar stories and themes, but are told in new and often exciting ways. Does Moana live up to the significant hype that has been placed on it? Keep reading our spoiler-free Moana review to find out.
As I’ve mentioned, there won’t be any spoilers in this review, however I will discuss several elements of the story, characters, and set pieces without delving into too many specifics. If you want to go into this movie without knowing any major plot elements, you can definitely continue to read this review.
We’re introduced to Moana as a toddler. We see pretty much immediately that she is a happy, adventurous little girl. We watch her grow up via a song sung by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), that teaches us about their island home of Motunui, and its inhabitants. We’re given the distinct impression that Chief Tui does not want anybody to leave their island paradise home, but of course you’re less likely to find adventure if you simply stay where you are.
Nearly all of this movie takes place either on, in, or around water. As is evidenced by many previous attempts to animate realistic-looking water, it’s hard. Disney seems to have figured it out though, because the ocean and any interactions with the water look spectacular. Hair has traditionally been a bit tough to animate, but between Brave and now Moana, Disney has got it figured out. With Moana’s long flowing hair and Maui’s curly mane there was a good amount of hair to work with here. Even the way the character’s hair is affected by the wind and water is realistic (though with the occasional overstated reaction for comedic effect).
The rest of the animation really does shine. Set in the South Pacific, there is a lot of sunlight during the day, and nights are bright with the ocean reflecting all of the stars in the sky. The art style and character design is great, and you can really tell that the directors (the Disney Animation dream team of Ron Clements & John Musker) dove into the culture, learning as much as they could about the style, history, and ways of the islanders. This really is a beautiful movie. The artists, animators, directors, really the entire crew created a very polished film.
Looks are great, but the performances of the voice actors shine as well. Dwayne Johnson hearkens back to his pro-wrestling persona, with a healthy mix of the driven yet humble star that we know him to be to bring the cocky, mischievous demigod Maui to life. Auli’i Cravalho is a name I hope we hear more in the future, because her performance for the titular Moana was fantastic. She brought depth and emotion to a character trying desperately to find her way, and the chemistry and eventual friendship between Moana and Maui is great, even though Auli’i and The Rock never actually recorded together.
Many of the other voice actors have some sort of Pacific Island heritage too, which is great to see. Alan Tudyk is perhaps a notable exception to that trend, but the bulk of his work in the film is as the voice of Heihei, Moana’s pet rooster, and idiotic comic relief. I’m not saying that the inclusion of the rooster is idiotic, but that Heihei himself is an idiot. Director Ron Clements has even described Heihei as “the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation.” He’s definitely good for a few laughs throughout the film though, with his squawking and pecking at random things.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the music in this film. The original songs in the film were composed and arranged by some of the best in the business: Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. In particular, “We Know The Way” (the song I haven’t been able to stop humming since the first teaser trailer was released) and Moana’s solo “How Far I’ll Go” really stood out to me on a tremendous soundtrack. I’m not sure “How Far I’ll Go” will de-throne the current Disney powerhouse musical number involving “going” but it is an uplifting anthem that really suits Moana as she struggles with some of her decisions. Maui’s “You’re Welcome” is a playful and upbeat track that really fits with the personality of the demigod, and the very traditional island music is full of energy, and really helps pull you in.
I can’t imagine this movie won’t have a tremendous opening weekend, especially opening on a long Thanksgiving weekend here in the US, but if for some reason you may have been on the fence, I highly recommend this movie. It has an engaging story with plenty of laughs, the visuals are spectacular, the performances by Auli’i Cravalho and The Rock are really great, and the typical Disney polish is on full display in this film. There are a few parts that might be a bit scary for very small children, though they’re all in what should be a pretty obvious part of the film. The rest of the movie should cleanse the pallette of those creepy bits though, and this is definitely a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen.