Dwayne Johnson continues to prove himself to be one of the most charismatic and likeable actors out there. His character in this film, Maui, is loud, funny, relatable, and extremely charming thanks to The Rock and he’s a great part of the movie. Watching this character and his interactions with his costar, Moana, reminded me of just how much fun I had seeing Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde banter in Zootopia. Moana is a very character driven film, as are many of Disney’s animations, and it relies on the relationship between these two characters to progress the plot and give the audience some fun along the way. Moana and Maui as a character duo give this film its heart and it’s relatability. Kids will love them because they’re entertaining and can do cool things, and adults will enjoy watching them because they’re compelling characters that are well written and also well voiced.
Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho does an excellent job in the film alongside Johnson’s shining performance. She has a great singing voice, and for her first time voicing an animated character, she did a surprisingly amazing job at bringing the character to life. Like I mentioned before, I love the banter between the two characters. It has a lot of comedy that will make the audience laugh, but it also adds an authenticity to their relationship. It’s fairly clichéd at this point to have two characters who don’t get along and are forced to work together, but Disney knows how to work with the formula and still make it feel fresh. The comedy that is present, though, is also very fresh. In the classic Disney style, there are fun gags for the kids and a whole bunch of jokes that will go right over their heads and adults will really appreciate. All the humor in the film worked for me, aside from the presence of Moana’s chicken sidekick, Heihei, who is basically a Jar Jar Binks type character voiced by Alan Tudyk (not really voiced, though…just chicken noises) that I couldn’t stand.
The computer animation and visual style of Moana is unsurprisingly stunning. The character designs are impressive and appealing, but the real technical prowess is found in the scenic backdrops and the incredibly realistically animated water. The ocean itself shapes itself and moves like a person at times because it’s almost character in the film, and that is obviously a little cartoony, but when the boat is sailing in the sea and fish are jumping around or Moana sticks her fingers in the water, I was out on the ocean with them. Like Pixar’s Finding Dory this year, Moana was able to accomplish near perfect water animation that moves and operates like real water would. The trees and the sand, as well as every object, character, and location, is detailed more than our eyes can appreciate, but it makes for an even more immersive experience.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of Hamilton, wrote or co-wrote many of the songs featured in this film. It is a new Disney princess movie, so naturally it will have singing. Luckily, the musical numbers didn’t really get in the way of the story and they worked for the film like songs in a musical should. Aside from that, they were just catchy and really good songs. They’re different, too. You have your typical character introduction songs and “setting out on the journey” songs, but nothing felt familiar and they certainly didn’t seem intrusive. I actually found myself bouncing my leg up and down to the beat of some of the music, which I should probably take as a bad sign because it means this movie’s soundtrack will do what Frozen’s did and be ruined just like that, but I’m going to embrace it for now because I really liked the music.
Disney has been making really good animated films almost every year, with hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and this year’s Zootopia. Something I’ve noticed, though, and probably most everybody else has noticed as well, is that they’re all the exact same movie. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney Animation Studios and most of the film’s they’ve put out in recent years, but they tend to follow a very defined formula that is present in many older Disney films, family films, and stories in general. A character has a passion in life and wants to do something about it, so s/he sets off on an adventure and meets somebody along the way who s/he doesn’t get along with and the two have to overcome their differences to get what they’re looking for and let their dreams come true, saving the world in the process. This is an extremely common pattern in films, in literature, in mythology, etc. Where I see this as a problem in this movie is in the fact that it’s very defined. Each formulaic beat is very obviously following a specific chain of events that we see all the time, and because of that the movie can feel familiar at times.
Pixar films do the same thing with a lot of their films, but their formulas aren’t as defined. They mix in many different characters, subplots, plot twists, and other plot devices to spice things up just enough so it doesn’t feel familiar. Moana was very particular about this pattern, though, and because of that I was able to see where it was going pretty much all the time. Is that really a problem, though? I enjoyed the film and the adventure the characters went on, so I suppose I’m not that bothered by the structure of the plot. I wouldn’t call it unoriginality, because that would be a flaw. They do things like they’ve done them many times before, but they do them so well that I can’t really complain.
I had a ton of fun watching the movie because, despite its familiar beats, it was able to build a compelling world around a culture that hasn’t yet been explored by Disney that I wanted to explore. The filmmakers and creative team presented a vast world that seemed to be full of possibilities and interesting stories. The story is entertaining and always has some humor or some emotion up its sleeve to keep things moving, save for a bit of a lull near the end of the second act. For about ten minutes I felt like nothing of importance was really happening and I wanted the story to get moving a but quicker, but once it did it was entertaining again and the film concluded excellently. This movie isn’t deeply mature like Zootopia or unexpectedly unique like Wreck-It Ralph, but it’s a beautifully animated, extremely enjoyable musical that you definitely don’t want to miss with your family.
— Camden McDonald