Film Review: Moana

Computer animated musical offers laughs and heart for all ages.

Sam Thornley / Staff Writer

Moana is the latest animated musical feature released by Walt Disney Pictures and offers entertainment as wondrous as the ocean the titular heroine travels. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the film stars the voices of Auli’i Cravahlo and Dwayne Johnson with Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, and Jemaine Clement rounding out the cast. Filled with music by Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Opetaia Foa’i, the film was released in theaters on Nov. 23 and will arrive on home media platforms on Mar. 7.

The film revolves around Moana, the teenage daughter of a Polynesian tribe’s overprotective chief, who is about to pass the title on to her. When the life on the tribe’s island starts to decay, Moana is sent on a quest by the gods and her dying grandmother to find the legendary demigod Maui and restore balance to the ocean.

What really makes Moana work is the phenomenal voice acting that drives the film through the main protagonists. Newcomer Auli’i Cravahlo is excellent as Moana, capable of hitting the entire emotional and musical range required of the character, along with having some great chemistry with Dwayne Johnson’s Maui. Dwayne Johnson does an equally commendable job as Maui with a careful application of his trademark wit balanced out with some tenderness during the more emotional scenes of the film.

The supporting cast of the film also delivers some great performances that help power the film’s emotional core. Temuerra Morrison and Rachel House in particular convey a lot of pathos as Moana’s father and grandmother respectively, making the most of their screen time in the film. Finally, Jemaine Clement delivers an over the top and enjoyable performance as the thieving coconut crab Tamatoa and provides a catchy musical number to match.

The most excellent part of Moana is the music, which is bound to remain with the viewer long after they leave the theater. In particular, the songs feature an excellent combination of English, Samoan, and Tokelauan lyrics that are catchy and simultaneously awe-inspiring, which manage to make the film feel more dramatic and sweeping.

Another excellent part of the film is the animation, which involved the development of new rendering technology to create the hair and water featured prominently throughout the film. The sand and water are rendered in incredible detail, along with the hair of the characters as it gets wet and blows in the wind. Additionally, the film features some well-done hand-drawn animation work for Maui’s sentient tattoos that add a creative flair to the computer animation.

Finally, the film has a wonderful amount of humor and emotion all mixed together. The film features funny interactions between Moana and Maui as they try to work through each other’s differences before exchanging pep talks and advice. Often, the film does this within scenes and succeeds at it marvelously thanks to the excellent voice acting.

If there are any real flaws with the film, it’s that the plot doesn’t stray too far from the usual Disney formula for their musicals. It still retains an animal sidekick and the villain has more to them than it seems at first sight, along with a saving-the-world plot and optimistic outlook. There are also some minor moments of repetitive humor that may get tiresome for some viewers.

Additionally, while remaining a funny character throughout the film, Moana’s pet chicken Hei Hei feels somewhat superfluous to the narrative. Since he cannot speak and has the intelligence of a rock, he mostly just sits around in the background while occasionally popping up for a quick joke. Considering he does not have much of a personality or arc behind him, he feels a little tacked on to the film in contrast to previous Disney sidekicks.

Overall, Moana is an excellently made animated film that will charm both adults and children with its emotion, music and, humor. While it has some flaws, its strengths more than outweigh them, and it manages to be an all-around strong film worthy of standing with the best that Disney has to offer.