Disney’s been having a good year with animation, as Moana hit theaters for the holiday weekend. Beautifully animated, matched with a strong story and a wonderful soundtrack, Moana stands on it’s own is and is one film you don’t want to miss before the year is out.
Moana hit theaters last Wednesday, and has seen a huge success, taking position with the second-best Thanksgiving opening weekend on record after Frozen, as it collected about $81.1 million at domestic theaters this holiday weekend. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive as well, as the film received a 98% approval from Rotten Tomatoes, and an 8.3/10 from IMDB. Film-goers of all ages have praised the new title, finding it fresh, three-dimensional, and engaging.
There is so much in this film to discuss, from the unique narrative to the effects and then some. I’ll cover the three main thrusts that stood out: the story, the animation, and the soundtrack.
Moana’s narrative follows the daughter of the chief–named Moana–as she struggles with her conflicting desires to care for her people, and to see what lies beyond the horizon on the open ocean. When the death and darkness of legend comes to her island home of Motunui, Moana sets out to find Maui, the demigod who unleashed the darkness when he stole the Heart of Te Fiti, and return Te Fiti’s Heart to where it belongs.
The film’s story is grounded in the Polynesian mythology, which inspired directors John Musker and Ron Clements to write a treatment for the film back in 2011. Both Musker and Clements made research trips Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti to learn about South Pacific culture, and the contacts they made became an Oceanic Story Trust, which helped shape the narrative and keep it true to its Pacific Island heritage. It paid off, as the story is fresh and invigorating, as it provides a setting few viewers have seen and/or interacted with, and reveals a new breed of mythological story unfamiliar with most audiences.
Even within the princess formula and tropes Disney is known to employ (see Moana’s chicken sidekick, conversations with the Ocean, and the guiding spirit of her grandmother), Moana calls out said tropes and allows Moana to grow beyond what many of Disney’s previous princesses have been able to do. Moana herself states that she’s, “not a princess,” in the film, and grows to be the central heroine who fights and wins in the end, where she viewed herself as Maui’s transport in the beginning.
Strong-headed, clever, and eager to learn, Moana herself is a multi-faceted character that is supported by the cast around her: Maui, the arrogant demigod eager to earn the love of mortals; Heihei, the not-so brilliant chicken who ends up along for the ride; and Gramma Tala, Moana’s grandmother and spiritual guide. No one character eclipses the other, and each have moments of true vulnerability that draw the viewer in generate compelling moments of empathy. Maui struggles with his desire to be loved, Moana struggles to understand who she is, and even Heihei, there mostly for visual gags and humor, has his moment of support when he saves the moment, and makes the viewer smile. Such compelling character writing adds to the overarching narrative, and breathes life into the story, making it more complex.
The one moment of pause that the story gave me was in regards to Moana’s motivation to leave her home, and the way it manifested and shifted late in the film [be forewarned, spoilers ahead]. Moana’s main motivation to initiate the main bulk of the story is that she was ‘chosen’ by the Ocean to fulfill a prophecy provided by her grandmother, which involves delivering the demigod, Maui, across the sea to restore the heart of Te Fiti (which Moana is in possession of). The prophecy and context clues implied that Maui has to be the one to return the heart, as he’s the one who stole it in the first place. This leaves Moana, our heroine, in the position of enabling a male side-character’s heroic acts, rather than being the hero herself. This set up left me anxious as Maui and Moana made initial contact with Te Ka, a volcano demon who guards the island of Te Fiti. Moana was developed as this strong, stubborn young woman who loved her people and would one day make a wonderful chieftain–was Disney about to undercut that with yet another narrative where the female is there only to enable to the male’s heroism? It narrowly sidestepped the issue as Maui was defeated and Moana was left feeling beaten and unworthy, forced to reconcile her failure and find faith in herself. She does come to terms with who she is and what she must do, but the transition is abrupt and a little jarring in the context that implied that she needed Maui to return the heart. Ultimately, she needed Maui to teach and guide her, so she could become whom the Ocean needed her to be, but the transition was a little off-putting and left me wondering if there could have been a better way to show Moana’s growth that didn’t put her in the position to be used for the male hero’s goals.
Overall, Moana was well written and sports a delightful cast of witty, clever characters in a narrative that is unique and complex. Moana is a powerful heroine who even makes a demigod think twice, and the setting grounded in Polynesian mythos feels creative and true to its source material.
In recent years, Disney’s animation has been hit or miss in quality and fineness (see the myriad of mistakes made in Frozen), and has sometimes struggled to make up the difference. Moana shows just how much Disney’s learned from their mistakes as it compliments a strong narrative with powerful visuals and beautiful animation.
Animation is labor of love, even with modern technology and software. To get the look Disney wanted for this film, a lot of impetus was put on the Visual Effects team, which was responsible for much of the water and volcanic effects. Given that much of the film takes place in the open ocean, the team went as far as developing their own water simulation engine to fit their needs, and even employed the snow simulation engine used for Frozen to help get the look and feel they wanted out of the sand. Developing these engines in-house allows for their team to have an intimate knowledge of the system and allows the developers to build the system to the artist preferences. This streamlines the effects process and provides the artists with the control needed to place and adjust things like splash back on the boat, or steam where the lava drips meet the water. The extra effort put in on the back-end payed off on the big screen, as the water effects are believably realistic as the water shifts and breaks and splashes against the shore. The effects have weight, and add an immersive layer that would be otherwise missing and would have left the viewer wondering why things looked off.
Moana also showcases a stunning blend of 2D and 3D animation, as Maui interacts with the tattoo form of himself, and the “You’re Welcome” number in the film’s rising action. There are a number of scenes where Maui and the tattoo counterpart (which tends to hang out on his
pectoral muscle) have full conversations and interactions, and the tattoo version goes so far as physically interacting with Maui as he’s flung across the other tattoos on Maui’s skin, or even goes in for a fist bump. The nuance of the tattoo!Maui’s acting lends him the same character as the acting of his 3D version, and is so seamlessly integrated that viewers never once question why his tattoo has a life of its own.
Combine well integrated animation and beautiful effects with the visual feeling of the South Pacific, and you have the visual design of the film. Moana works with a brilliant palette of bright, saturated colors common to the islands in the South Pacific, down to the particular shade of blue commonly associated with the waters there. The colors invoke the feeling of the islands, and set the tone scene-to-scene as Moana meets new characters and travels to new places. The manipulation of color enhances the emotional hits in the story, and adds an additional layer of impact as the narrative progresses.
Moana is stunning and manages to avoid some of the animated pitfalls of its predecessors, even in the moments where a trained eye can pick up on the mistakes. Between the fluid effects, brilliant 2D integration, and a beautifully vibrant color palette, the film is a visual work of art from start to finish.
Written by by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Moana soundtrack is phenomenal. The score and songs utilize the Polynesian rhythms and musical tradition to create a soundscape that is complementary to Moana’s adventures, and also true to the Disney animated musical tradition. Not every number is groundbreaking, but the overall quality lends itself to the film and makes it that much more accessible to the viewers.
Given that the narrative is based in the South Pacific and its mythology, the Moana team was hard pressed to avoid appropriating South Pacific culture in a way that would be seen as insulting or misguided. In addition to the research Clements and Musker did for the story, they also researched the music and rhythmic traditions of the people in the South Pacific, specifically looking to Foa’i for input and direction. Miranda brought the Broadway flare that had helped films like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin succeed, as well as his own Caribbean heritage and appreciation for other cultures, while Mancina brought his experience from The Lion King and other Disney films to the table. The work and combined talents paid off, as the trio worked to produce an sound that was authentic to the traditions of the Polynesian people. In an interview with NPR, Foai’ said that, “the quality of the work is important. ‘You can’t fool people, you know,’ Foa’i [said]. ‘If something’s fabricated, we know it.’ But he [said] he’s pleased with the results. ‘Put it this way: my ancestors would be happy with this movie,’ he says. ‘And that’s saying a lot’” [NPR, “In ‘Moana,’ New Voices Both Uphold And Challenge The Disney Tradition”].
Accessing the vocal talents of Miranda, Moana’s voice actress, Auli’i Cravalho; and Foa’i’s vocal group, Te Vaka–in addition to a larger choir from Fiji–Moana’s soundtrack firmly echoes the Polynesian peoples and their musical traditions. Even with an unfamiliar sound for many viewers, the soundtrack is still catchy and highly accessible, sticking in your head hours after you hear it and urging you to sing along. Moana’s soundtrack may prove to join the Great Disney Songbook, and it would be a well earned achievement.
Moana is a complex, beautiful film, from its visual design to it’s compelling narrative and thrilling soundtrack. Though it stumbled a little in narrative pacing, and not every song was a knock out, the film overall was engaging and enticed audiences of all ages, providing fun throwbacks for old fans and new jokes as well. It also provides a new form of representation for those of South Pacific island descent, and may prove to have a great impact on the next generation of Disney fans. I’d highly recommend going to see it while it’s in theaters, and definitely stay through the end of the credits.