Past the Popcorn: Moana is Disney’s Delightful Animated Ocean Getaway

by Jeff Walls

The new Disney animated film Moana may just be the movie that finally proves once and for all that Dwayne Johnson can do anything.  The wrestler-turned-actor has done action well, he’s done comedy well, and now he has added singing a catchy tune in a Disney movie to his resume.  Johnson’s performance as the demigod Maui is one of the highlights of this fun adventure of a movie.

The movie’s prologue tells that Maui used his magical powers to steal the heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess, which causes a horrible darkness to spread across the oceans.  The movie then introduces us to the title character, the daughter of the chief on the island of Motunui where the darkness has not yet reached.  Moana is expected to stay on the island and take over as chief from her father, but all her life she has felt as if the ocean was calling to her.  When the darkness reaches her island in the form of rotten cocoanuts and fishless seas, Moana takes it upon herself to sail out beyond the reef, find Maui, and get him to restore the heart to save her people.

Dwayne Johnson voices Maui in MoanaWhen Moana finds Maui, she finds him less than helpful.  He has lost his magical fishhook, the source of all his powers, and without it there is no way they could defeat the evil lava monster which guards their destination.  With the help of the ocean itself, Moana manages to drag Maui along and together they must brave not only the oceans, but also the mysterious Realm of Monsters where his hook is being held hostage.

Dwayne Johnson only has one song in the movie, but it is one of the film’s highlights.  Singing about how powerful his character is and how lucky Moana should feel to have met him, the number is reminiscent of the Genie’s introductory “Friend Like Me” number in Aladdin, which is fitting considering both that film and Moana were directed by the duo of Ron Clements and John Musker.

Moana is the first computer animated movie to be directed by the team of Clements and Musker; their last film being the underrated hand-drawn film The Princess and the Frog back in 2009.  The pair has lost none of their magic touch in the transition to computer animation, however, as every square inch of Moana is a stunning work of art.  The water effects are especially impressive.  Pixar has already dazzled us with water effects in the Finding Nemo/Dory movies, but most of that was under the water.  This movie easily sets a new standard for animated fair taking place above the surface of the sea.

The directing duo have not forgotten the art form that got them here, however, as one of the cleverest things they do in this movie is make full use of the various tattoos on the giant body of Maui.  The tattoos were created using traditional hand-drawn animation instead of a computer.  The tattoos act as an additional story-telling device as well as Maui’s conscience as they move over his body and even interact with him and Moana.

Moana is voiced by Auli’i Cravalho in her first and to date only movie performance.  The actress was only 14-years-old when she began working on this film, but you would never deduce her youth and inexperience from her performance.  She very much holds her own against her larger than life (both animated and real-life) co-star.  She is every bit the classic Disney heroine who dreams of adventure and finds it.  She denies being a princess, only the daughter of the island chief, but Maui insists that she must be a princess because she wears a skirt and hangs out with animal sidekicks.  That is one of a few self-referential moments where the movie references the studio’s long history of animated film success.  Make sure to stay until the end of the credits for one of the better references.

By hitting the open oceans and exploring Polynesia, Moana ventures where few other animated films have journeyed.  The result is an entertaining adventure full of comedy, action, and magic.

Moana is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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