REVIEW: Moana

I honestly wasn’t that excited for Moana. I was pretty sure it would be good but from the brief bits I saw in the trailer nothing about it especially captured my attention. There were just other movies I wanted to see more. There was a chance I was just going to let this one slip by me. Well, I’m so glad I found the time to see this in a theater. This is a case where my initial impression was just wrong; Moana not only deserved my attention, it legit blew me away with how good it was.

This first thing for me is how good the visuals are. While The Good Dinosaur was a pretty mediocre movie overall, it proved that CG water effects have gotten really good, and Moana puts that tech to use in a story worth telling. But it’s not just the water, the whole movie is just bursting with color. This is top level vibrant spectacle. Including a fiery lava monster that delivers on what I wanted visually from Dormammu in Doctor Strange.

There’s a lot of How to Train Your Dragon in this setup. A small, insular island village and our hero is the child of a stubborn leader who wants our hero to conform to the rules and constraints of that life. In a rarity for a Disney movie, both of our heroine’s parents are still alive (though the movie still finds a Grandparent to fulfill its dark needs), and there is no romance. This is an adventure that belongs to the titular heroine, and though Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) does set out to find Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a shapeshifting demigod, to make him fix the mistake he made, it is ultimately up to her to make the difference and save the day.

I love Disney’s animated movies, but there’s usually also something that nags or something that doesn’t hit as hard. I love parts and moments from much of their catalog more than I love entire films; with exceptions of course.

I love this entire movie.

And this very much feels like a modern take on a traditional Disney movie, not a Pixar movie. For as much as I love Pixar, their movies are all stuck in the past in some way. Nostalgia is ingrained in most of their films. Even Inside Out, which was about a little girl (and not for example an elderly man, or an ancient robot) was about her being sad about moving away from the life she had previously known. For better or worse Pixar is usually looking back, whereas traditional Disney heroes are kids looking forward, hoping for something better.

Moana is a broad adventure about a girl who longs for more than this provincial life. And the movie is confident enough in itself to just let her have an adventure without ever undercutting her. She doubts herself and struggles and perseveres. Her arc is compelling, and while she is chosen by the ocean for this mission, in the world of this movie it makes sense why she was chosen.

It also helps that the comedic sidekick characters that exist in the movie don’t have any speaking lines, and instead get by on physical comedy that just works better. The movie did have more piss jokes that I expected, but even those worked somehow.

This music isn’t incredible, it doesn’t blow me away the way the animation does; and there’s no song in it that’s going to compete is the ridiculous mega-hit that was Frozen‘s Let it Go. (Though How Far I’ll Go really grows on me the more I listen to it) I still like it a lot overall, and am listening to it in the background while I write this review. It’s certainly an asset to the film that it is a musical. The music is weaved into the film well and makes use of reprises effectively. Overall I clearly think Moana is better than Frozen musically. (Frozen was a superstar hogging the ball, while Moana is just sharp play with great fundamentals. [Oh god, I finally broke down and just made a basketball analogy])

Nothing has made me happier about Auli’i Cravalho’s performance as a singer and the style of music in the film than the Alessia Cara pop-song version that played over the credits and chased me out of the theater. I really hate that version.

Let me make that clear, this is a movie where the one thing I would change is the song that plays over the credits after the movie is over.

I had a great time and I was really impressed with Moana. This is a special film. Can’t recommend it enough.