There’s been a lack of substance at the box office lately. Studios continue to pump out remake after remake. Reboot after reboot. Big companies with big budgets cash in on big franchises and big brands. It’s nothing new, but sometimes you need some substance to cut through all the spectacle. Sure, it’s fun to watch the hero outfox the villain, or punch the villain, or shoot the villain, or blow up the villain (I could go on); but, that’s not what makes a good movie story. Under all the action lies an emotional through line – the reason why the hero must outfox/punch/shoot/blow up the villain.
Moana is an amazing story about the journey of self discovery. It asks the question: who am I? Is there action and comedy? Sure; and it’s fantastic! But more importantly, is has an emotional core that makes it one of the more rewarding cinematic experiences of the year.
At it’s core, Moana is the story of a conflicted girl. She has a choice to make: stay on her island home or venture out into the ocean. Auli’i Cravalho gives a spirited performance as Moana in her first movie appearance, and Dwayne Johnson was surprisingly un-Rock-ish as the demigod, Maui. Both actors gave wonderful musical performances (wouldn’t be Disney without some infectiously catchy show tunes), with special mention made to Cravalho in “How Far I’ll Go,” written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. In fact, the entire soundtrack to the film is amazing! Johnson sings for the first time on film in a song called “You’re Welcome,” and Jemaine Clement dusts of his Flight of the Conchords chops for the trippy yet comedic “Shiny.”
It should go without saying that the film is stunningly beautiful. Disney continues to outdo itself with every new animated feature. The character models are fun and unique. Each location has a heart all its own. It truly is a visual spectacle, but it’s not a spectacle for the sake of looking pretty. In a movie about discovery, both of the self and of the world around you, location design becomes an important part of the storytelling process.
The ocean is an actual character in the movie. It has comedic timing and motivations. Distant islands are more than just places to go; they’re characters waiting to be introduced. Disney magic, partnered with the vibrant cultures of the Pacific Islands creates an amazingly immersive world, full of adventure, laughs, heart, and inspiration.
Ultimately, Moana is a lot like Aladdin – minus the love story and with an added emphasis on personal identity. Moana’s journey to find out who she really is is truly inspiring. I found myself thinking of how I would answer the question of “who am I?”
This is a film that depicts a culture and a history that is rarely seen on film. And, sure, it has a Disney vernier on it, but that just means it’s also a quality animated film. In an industry where substance is so often discarded for the sake of style, flash, and spectacle, it is truly refreshing to see a movie that has real heart. Who am I? How far will I go to find out? You should at least go as far as the nearest movie theater, because Moana is must see.