In a dramatic departure for this page, this review is actually being published prior to everyone already seeing the movie. Thanks to Event Cinemas, I was able to catch an advance screening of Moana, but this film does not hit Australian theatres until Boxing Day.
It’s been a very interesting year for animated movies. Earlier in the year, before I even reviewed movies beyond commenting on Facebook posts and annoying my friends with my thoughts on movies they weren’t even contemplating seeing, I saw Disney’s Zootopia. On the conclusion of that movie, I was convinced that I’d just seen the best animated movie of the year. I was prepared to hand an Oscar to the film immediately. Yet somehow, miraculously, Zootopia is now the clear 3rd best animated movie of the year.
What is less clear is what is the best animated movie of the year. The options are this film, and Kubo and the Two Strings. All I know is that one of those movies will take home the Animated Oscar, and I will be very happy for it, while also being disappointed for the one that doesn’t take it home. Anad that is very high praise indeed.
Moana is a story steeped in the traditional mythology of the Polynesian people. According to legend, the great goddess Te Fiti, created all life before transforming herself into an island. When the trickster demigod Maui visits the island of Te Fiti, he steals an emerald stone, known as the heart of Te Fiti, in the hopes that he can use it to create new life and become a hero of the people. But he is soon thwarted by an evil force, the heart is lost and the world slowly begins dying without the steadying hand of Te Fiti. When her island’s food starts to disappear, centuries later, a cheiftan’s daughter named Moana sets out on a dangerous voyage to find the exiled Maui and return the heart to the island of Te Fiti, allowing the world to continue supporting life.
Straight off the bat, I will point out that, while he goes uncredited, the first draft of this film was written by filmmaker Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and it shows. Not only does the film have Waititi’s signature humour popping up throughout the film, but it also showcases Waititi’s fascination with Polynesian culture, in all its facets – from the mythological, to the mundane day-to-day traditions.
The film also features the voices of many of Waititi’s regulars, including both of these clowns
Combining with Waititi’s early writing is the directing duo of Ron Clements and John Musker – a directing duo with a long history at Disney, who have previously helmed The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog, amongst other Disney classics. Once again, this Disney experience shows as we get this Polynesian tale packaged within a story that is unmistakenly Disney.
The vocal talent is also spot on, particularly in the casting of the two lead characters – Moana and Maui. Moana is voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, a 16 year old Hawaiian girl who can damn well sing, and is a brilliant voice actor to boot. Opposite her is the star power of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Maui. I’ve long been a critic of Johnson’s career (as nothing has really grabbed me from his resume) but this is definitely an exception, as Johnson infuses Maui with an infectious energy. The rest of the cast includes Rachel House, Nicole Scherzinger, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk and Temuera Morrison, who will be instantly recognizable to Star Wars fans as Jango Fett/every clone of Jango Fett.
Also a huge highlight of this film (it feels like the highlights never end, right?) is the music. Every song here is something memorable, from Moana’s fantastic song “How Far I’ll Go” (which will sadly probably be the next “Let It Go”), to the Polynesian anthem “We Know the Way”, as well as Maui’s impossibly catchy “You’re Welcome” and the song “Shiny”, a song written as a tribute to the late David Bowie and performed by Flight of the Concords’ Jemaine Clement. I’ve been listening to this soundtrack almost constantly since seeing the film, and it’s almost certainly my favourite Disney soundtrack since the days of Aladdin and The Lion King. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as the songs were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind the smash Broadway hit Hamilton. (Full disclosure, I haven’t seen Hamilton, but I do have a source that tells me it’s highly overrated.)
I have the best sources. The best. Greatest sources in America. Trust me. We’re going to Make Broadway Great Again, and we’re going to get the West End to pay for it.
In more highly positive news, the animation of this film is so incredible. It’s on a quality of the best Pixar movies in that regard, and is definitely the most beautiful film in the Disney Animation stable. Brilliant oceanic set pieces, amazing lush islands, some truly unique character designs – this movie does have it all. I cannot recommend it enough.
If I had any complaints, it’s that some scenes in the middle of the film do feel a tad inconsequential, but they’re done with such charm that it’s hardly likely to bother anyone.
4.9/5 – A near perfect cinematic experience. Take your kids. If you don’t have kids, go anyway.
In addition to this review, Another Bloody Critic would like to pass their respects in regards to the passing of comic actor Andrew Sachs this week. While he had a handful of film appearances, Sachs is easily best known as the bumbling Spanish waiter Manuel in the hit BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers. It is a role that has remained one of my favourites to watch of any genre ever, and Sachs will be greatly missed. RIP.