Moana Film Review: A Satisfying Journey of a New Disney Princess

Disney’s newest animated film Moana opens tomorrow (November 23rd, 2016). The movie has been long awaited by Disney fans, for many reasons including that Moana is the newest Disney princess. But she is much more than that, she is a true heroine in the film – really, hearkening back to a Mulan style princess in her bravery. This is also Ron Clements and John Musker’s first CGI film, which is amazing considering how long they’ve been working in animation (including The Little Mermaid and Aladdin).

Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) grows up in the island village of Motunui. There she learns the story of Te Fiti, the “mother island” who lost her heart because of Maui (Dwayne Johnson). Moana is drawn to the sea from a very early age, with it beckoning to her but also protecting her from harm. Her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) is very against her going out past the reef – in fact, none of the villagers can venture out. Yet her Gramma Tala (Rachel House) encourages her to make her own journey in life. As a baby, Moana finds a rock with a spiral on it – but it disappears until she is a teenager. The animation in the movie is stunning, the ocean and the landscaping are lush in a way that maybe we’ve not seen before. Flowing hair and animated water have often been avoided in Disney films until now, but the technology was created as the film was being made to allow for both to be shown in a new way. The water is actually considered a character.

Moana eventually learns that she comes from voyagers, though that had stopped a long time prior. Gramma Tala tells Moana that the ocean has chosen her, and Moana receives her rock back.

During this time frame, we meet Moana’s pet pig Pua and the stupid chicken HeiHei (Alan Tudyk). Pua actually figures very little in the movie, only showing up at the beginning and the end. Heihei makes the full journey with her, even though Maui (who she does find) considers him a snack. Heihei really is stupid, and he’s really funny as well. Heihei almost didn’t make it into the movie at all, but now he’s one of the stars of the film.

At times, Moana reminds me a little of Rapunzel. There is one scene where she is running around, and I expected her to scream “Best day ever”!

Moana does make her journey, and as I mentioned, finds Maui. He doesn’t come across as someone to be feared, but more jovial and he eventually becomes kind of a sidekick to Moana. He’s less of a hero in the movie than I think Moana is, though he does come through at the end. He sings a bouncy song “You’re Welcome”, which doesn’t have a noticeable (to me) Hawaiian feel to it, but I enjoy the overall sound. It’s really between that and “We Know the Way”, as to what viewers will remember most. “You’re Welcome” to me is more catchy. And by far I prefer the movie version of “How Far I’ll Go” to the pop one. That is usually the case. I do think that is played too often in the film. The songs overall are good in the film, some better than others. I would use the word “inconsistent” and that I often felt like I was hearing the same song over and over again.

There is one odd scene with a crab named Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) – he’s villainous but maybe in a misunderstood way. It is a very funny scene, but I felt like it didn’t belong in this movie. It felt much more like…a homage to Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And this scene, along with others sometimes use words that I’d call mild scatalogical humor (like what shiny rhymes with). Not only that, but I’ve noticed lately – in The Good Dinosaur and now Moana – where swear words are implied in a way that you hear a sentence and they stop short of the swear. It still continues in your head, which I find annoying in a Disney animated film.

There are Easter eggs in the film. I didn’t find them all, that will wait for the Blu-ray release. There is one at the end credits, and it is worth staying for.

Jared Bush is the screenwriter behind two big Disney animation films this year: Zootopia and Moana (he also co-directed Zootopia). I have had the chance to interview him for both. He is naturally very funny, which attendees of D23 Destination D learned just a few days ago. He talked about the collaborative process behind creating an animated film like Moana at the Moana press day a few months ago, and I have an article about that here.

Moana can be a little uneven at times, but I give it a B+. I enjoyed it even more than expected.

Here is our video of a recent Moana press conference.