November 29, 2016

Moana: Gorgeous Animation, Expansive Mythology and a Captivating Culture

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I had a friend the other day say when I like a movie, my metric ranges from “good” to “coma-inducing.” Well let’s just say Disney’s Moana made it hard for me to wake up in time to write this review.

Moana follows the story of a young girl on the island of Mata Nui. She’s the daughter of the village chief and will become chief herself someday. But ever since she was young, she has had a deep desire to explore the ocean. The villagers of Mata Nui live in paradise. They know how dangerous the ocean is, so no one is allowed to venture out beyond the reef, trapping Moana on the island.

Unfortunately, we find that a thousand years ago, the demi-god Maui stole the Heart from the island goddess Te Fiti. With this heart, one can harness the power of Creation, but he was thwarted by the lava demon Te Ka. Maui’s magical fishhook as well as the Heart of Te Fiti were lost to the ocean forever, and a darkness began to spread across the sea in their wake. When this darkness reaches Moana’s island, she decides to venture forth and deliver Maui to Te Fiti to restore the Heart.

Moana is the archetypal hero’s journey, and as most Disney films go, the story is pretty predictable. However, I feel that for a film to be so predictable yet still enthralling only makes it even more rewatchable. As an avid film buff, I started to notice some fun little references planted throughout the narrative, and it’s clear how much these filmmakers infused their love into this movie. There’s a great Raiders of the Lost Ark callback on the island where Moana meets Maui, and later in the film, they’re attacked by little coconut pirates in a heavily Mad Max-inspired chase scene. The film takes another departure in the Monster Realm which I really wish we could’ve been in longer. Either one more ocean dweller searching for the Heart or a little more time in the Monster Realm is something I think the movie could’ve benefitted greatly from.

Where the story beats don’t provide anything that new, the characters can fill in the gaps. Moana is portrayed by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, and for the life of me I better see this young woman soar to success. This is her first film ever at 16 years old, and it’s truly impressive how genuine, mature and poised her portrayal was. Moana is a character imbued with a strong sense of wonder and compassion. She is incredibly determined but often bites off more than she can chew, getting her into a lot of trouble throughout the film. She feels like a fully realized character with a sense of duty to her family, a yearning to explore and a strong sense of humor. She’s just infinitely likable, and I’m so excited to see what Auli’i does next.

Next we have Maui, the shapeshifting demi-god who has lost his powers along with his magical fish hook. Listen, we can talk about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for days on end, but I’ll just summarize here by saying he’s simply fantastic. Maui is bold, brash, highly egotistical and incredibly funny. The back and forth between him and Moana is heartfelt and snappy, emphasizing the two’s strengths and weaknesses.

For side characters we have the Ocean who’s basically a callback to Aladdin’s Magic Carpet. It’s a beautifully animated character who is characterized well through its movements alone. Next is Moana’s chicken Hei Hei which I felt the film could do without. He’s just a dumb chicken there for comic relief. He got laughs out of me for sure, but he wasn’t helpful to the story, and I felt the film could’ve been a tad more mature without him.

And lastly we have Maui’s tattoo version of himself. Maui’s torso and arms are covered in tattoos depicting all of his adventurous triumphs, and the little tattoo version of Maui is a fully independent character who is easily my favorite of the sidekicks. He keeps Maui in his place when his ego gets too big, and he also stands as a great example of the thorough research the filmmakers did to bring Polynesian culture to the big screen.

If you’ve seen the featurettes or read a number of internet articles, you’ll know this film is being praised for its attention to detail and portrayal of Polynesian culture. When you sit down in the theater, you can clearly see where all this work has been put into. Like this summer’s Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana infuses its story with the culture and mythology of its people, providing a beautiful and expansive narrative that feels larger than life. I especially loved the detail put into the mechanics of the sailing canoes and how Maui teaches Moana wayfinding techniques during their adventure. Back in Mata Nui, we get through a musical number a summarization of their culture and lifestyles, filled with dancing, art and tradition.

It’s refreshing to witness another great Disney musical as the numbers in this film are insidiously catchy. Get ready to hear Moana’s song “How Far I’ll Go” screamed by drunken college students for the next few months. The music was composed in part by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and anyone who’s familiar with Hamilton will recognize exactly which songs he had a lot of involvement in. Maui’s song “You’re Welcome” didn’t grab me at first in the theater, but since getting home I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on repeat and I can’t stop singing it. Also there’s a cameo in the film for a song called “Shiny” which is too good to spoil here.

And now for the piece de resistance: the visuals.

Moana is the single most beautiful animated film I think I’ve ever seen. Every single frame of every scene is gorgeously animated and beautifully rendered computer generated imagery. Before I switched to Info Sci, I was going for the Computer Graphics track in Comp Sci, so I especially have an appreciation for remarkable computer animation. The engines simulating hair, fabric and water are impeccable, and the lighting engines make the landscapes and water look photorealistic even when the characters are cartoony. This is a gorgeously animated film and gorgeously directed, helmed by the duo that brought us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Treasure Planet to name a few. The shot composition is breathtaking and combined with the music brought me to tears a number of times throughout the film. This isn’t a sad movie in the vein of Inside Out, but it was still able to break me down just by how majestic and adventurous it was.

There’s a great quote by Steven Spielberg which I use all the time that relates well to this movie’s theme. The film is all about finding who you are, and specifically about denying what you’re told you’re supposed to be and listening from within. I didn’t get time to talk about Moana’s grandmother, but she’s also one of my favorite characters in the film. She has conversations with Moana about where she wants to go and who she wants to be, and each time Moana starts off doing what she’s told but then hesitates. Something inside is holding her back, something from within, and I think this quote illustrates that feeling.

“But when you have a dream, it doesn’t often come at you screaming in your face, […] Sometimes a dream almost whispers […] It very rarely shouts, and if you can listen to the whisper, and if it tickles your heart […] then that is going to be what you do for the rest of your life” – Steven Spielberg.

Brendan Coyle is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].