So a reluctant princess, a haughty demigod and a brain-dead chicken go on a journey filled with adventure, heart and lots of genuine laughs. It sounds interesting at face value, and this is the plot that drives Disney’s latest animated feature, Moana.
Directed by Disney Animation vets John Musker and Ron Clements, Moana is a love letter to the natural beauty and exotic cultures of the South Pacific – filled with, amazing visuals, great songs and stunning animation.
Just as rich and beautiful as the setting and design are the thematic underpinnings that drive the narrative of Moana. It’s a very spiritual world full of godlike creatures, and the themes have much to say about the nature of the one, true God.
We know the way…SPOILERS AHEAD!
Stuff I Liked
To say that Moana is a beautiful film would be an understatement. Every frame is packed with paradisiacal visuals of the South Pacific. The crystal clear ocean shimmers in the sunlight, and the greenery swaying in the island breeze makes the islands sparkle emeralds. There’s a fairy tale quality to this very realistic setting; it’s just absolutely amazing and unlike anything Disney has done before.
Directors John Musker and Ron Clements are old Disney veterans, and their history, comedic wit and story sensibilities are all over this film (their movies include some of the biggest modern Disney hits like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, as well as under-appreciated gems like Hercules and The Princess and the Frog). Ron and John (as they are known in the animation industry) learned from the original masters of animation, and really understand how to move audiences through a story.
I was thoroughly happy to see that Ron and John included hand-drawn animation elements in Moana, specifically Maui’s conscience-like tattoo. Animation legend Eric Goldberg was the supervising animator for “Mini-Maui,” and really brought a sense of spontaneity and fun that only hand-drawn animation can convey.
When Moana was first announced, I had a fear that this character would be used as yet another tool of modern feminism and identity politics – in that, like so many of today’s heroines, she would be defined by her gender (and/or race), have improbable talents, and save the day amidst a bunch of brutal, oafish and stupid men; in other words, a Mary Sue. This was one of the few things I didn’t like about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, since Rey was arguably a classic Mary Sue-type character.
Thankfully, Moana is no Mary Sue. She is a well-rounded person with a good heart and great spirit. But she has insecurities and a huge learning curve. It makes her triumph that much sweeter and relatable. There are small moments of hesitation and confusion in her eyes that make her seem more real. Auli’i Cravalho, the young actress voicing Moana, infuses the character with a wonderful realistic quality and vulnerability. It doesn’t feel manufactured or contrived. She’s a strong character because of who she is, not because of her gender or race, just like another outstanding Ron and John heroine: Tiana from The Princess and the Frog.
Dwayne Johnson’s heft and personality makes any movie he’s in an enjoyable experience, even if the movie itself isn’t that great. The man is a ball of charisma, and knows how to use it well. Johnson’s Maui is exactly what animation was made for: a dynamic character with a broad range of expressions and humorous exaggerations. He and Auli’i Cravlho made a great comedic team.
The score brilliantly reflected the Polynesian culture depicted in the film. There is plenty of epic cinematic quality, but the island rhythm counterpoints it in a nice way. Mark Mancina was an inspired choice for the score, since he created the score of Disney’s Tarzan with similar high-energy rhythms and interesting orchestration.
The songs, composed by Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i and Lin-Manuel Miranda, were wonderfully integrated, for the most part, and were very “Disney” in their execution – pushing the story forward and exploring the characters’ personalities. They pulled from rhythms and instrumentation of Polynesian culture, which was wonderful and filled in music with an island exuberance – even including Tokelauan lyrics, which gave the songs a cultural credibility. My favorite was “We Know the Way”; it was definitely the most versatile and “Disney” of the film’s songs. It also showed off the film’s beauty and creative heart.
Stuff I Didn’t Like
Though I did enjoy most of the songs, there were a couple instances in which the film suffered from the Frozen syndrome: the music style or lyrics of a song did not match either the overall style of the film and/or the time in which the story takes place (Olaf’s “In Summer” is the best example from that film, but there were others).
The worst offender was the giant crab Tamatoa’s song, “Shiny.” Jermaine Clement is definitely talented, but the song did not fit the film’s musical makeup. It had a strange David Bowie feel to it, and totally brought me out of the story. The song could have been completely cut, and the film would have been better for it.
The lesser offender was Maui’s catchy “You’re Welcome.” The song is great; I just wished it had more of a Polynesian feel, at least in it’s orchestration. It started in the same rhythm, but it went full Broadway with addition of brass and the peppy rhythm of the chorus. It was an awkward transition.
Based on the marketing of the film, I was expecting more Pua the pig in the film. He was unfortunately bookended, and did not come on Moana’s journey – leaving the literally bird-brained Heihei. The chicken was funny, but I could have used more Pua to counter Heihei’s one-note joke.
My last gripe was a simple story beat: the death of Moana’s grandmother. It was very sudden. One minute she was on the beach in seemingly fine health, the next she was on her deathbed. There was very little indication visually that Gramma Tala was sick. More of an effort should have been made by the directors to establish her situation and set up her illness or advancing age (it’s unclear what was actually wrong with her).
Stuff to Ponder
In making Moana, the filmmakers paid special attention to not only the beauty and splendor of the South Pacific, but the cultures of its people. This included their mythical stories of powerful deities and demigods. One of these benevolent forces is the ocean itself, which can be seen early on in the film sharing a special relationship with Moana. It’s playful, teaches lessons with experience, protects and guides those willing to trust it.
A poignant conversation occurred between Maui and Moana, in which the demigod questions Moana’s appointment by the ocean and asks why doesn’t the ocean just complete Moana’s task itself. It obviously could because of its power and reach. So why did it choose Moana?
This idea really touched on my heart, as God has used many individuals that were considered weak and unqualified as catalysts for His plans. And the question Maui asks has been applied to God throughout history. Moses had a speech impediment. David was an adulterer and accessory to murder. Peter was weak and denied Christ.
The answer is found in the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he states:
“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are so that none may boast before Him.” 1 Corinthians 26-29
God sees beyond a person’s worldly qualities. After all, it is God who created us, and no life is without worth or use to Him. Lessons are learned either by the supposedly unqualified person or the people around them – often both. Through the weak and foolish, He humbles the strong and supposedly wise. And through His messengers, God established relationships and strengthens bonds between people. If He were to do it all Himself, there would be no growth within us and others – and that is God’s end goal – and there wouldn’t be much of a point to our existence.
So What I’m Trying to Say is
Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced another solid feature film with Moana. It’s beautiful, funny and truly touching. Moana herself is another strong Disney heroine in the classic tradition, and I really hope Disney follows this precedent for all subsequent female protagonists.
This film says a lot about the nature of God in its narrative. He often chooses people one least expects to fulfill His plans. But that is by design. God loves us and knows us better than anyone else. It is a matter of having faith that God knows what is best and that He will take you where you should go – for only He truly knows the way.
Originally posted on Reel World Theology.
Walt Disney Animation Studios
Starring Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison,
Jermaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger and Alan Tuduyk
Written by Jared Bush
Based on a story by Taika Waititi, John Musker, Ron Clements, Chris Williams,
Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandel and Jordan Kandel
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements