Weekly Review: Moana (2016)

When her island is in danger, young Moana ventures out into the open ocean to find the demigod Maui. With his help, Moana will attempt to save her people and the world.

I won’t lie. I’ve been anticipating the release of Moana for years. It’s been on my radar ever since it was announced as a concept. Through its development and production, my anticipation only grew more, and anticipation soon turned to outright excitement.

Moana is the latest animated feature film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. It stars newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as young Moana, and it co-stars Dwayne Johnson as the demigod Maui. Other voices in the film are provided by Nicole Scherzinger, Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, Jemaine Clement, and Alan Tudyk.

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The music composed for Moana is particularly upbeat, fusing Polynesian sounds with the lyrics and flow of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda, as well as Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, are credited with creating the music for the film. The soundtrack fits the film very well, and there are definitely some catchy, upbeat zingers like “You’re Welcome,” which was stuck in my head for days after seeing the film.

If I were to give a brief rendition of what I thought of Moana, I would start by saying that I had a big smile on my face the entire time I was watching it. It’s a very happy, uplifting movie. If you try to delve deeper into the story, you see that none of it is particularly new. It takes a lot of the good aspects of other similar movies and combines them in a way that just works really well. I did enjoy the complexity of the characters throughout Moana though. There was an interesting way that many of the characters are introduced. Many of them have villainous qualities, but they can’t be deemed entirely as villains. I really did enjoy that complexity. It added a much needed depth to Disney’s formula.

I will also point out here that the animation throughout Moana is absolutely gorgeous. The ocean, Moana’s hair, the landscape… Each element was so visually stunning. It was hard to look away. One added bonus to all of this are Maui’s tattoos, which appear to have a life of their own. Apparently, these tattoos are hand drawn. This explains how they were able to stand out so well from the rest of the animation. It’s just a very beautiful experience.

While Moana has been pretty critically acclaimed as a story, not everyone has showered it with the same positive regard. Cultural criticisms have been steadily cropping up since the movie began its development. Early concerns had to do with the generalized take on Polynesian culture that Moana portrays. The Polynesian region is filled with many different cultures of people with different beliefs, and Moana takes a very general stance on this, combining a lot of different cultures into one. There has been very valid concern that this generalized approach would do more harm than good.

Concerns also arose with the release of Maui’s character design. Some cultural advocates have criticized his design as being stereotypical from a Hollywood point of view, even comparing his resemblance to Shrek. Some have criticized his design as being an overweight stereotype, which I personally don’t agree with. While Maui is a rather large character, his appearance is lauded as being one of strength and power. I never got the feeling throughout watching Moana that Maui was supposed to be seen as overweight or as a joke for that same reason.

Despite the fact that I don’t agree with all of the criticisms that Moana has received, they are still valid from a cultural standpoint. It’s always a good thing to have open discussion about these sort of topics so that we can move forward with better representation in the future. For example, if Maui, being a larger character, wasn’t one of the only American media interpretations of a Polynesian person, his particular appearance wouldn’t spark as much of an outcry. It’s easy to be upset when your culture isn’t represented often, and when it is represented, it’s done so incorrectly. I can completely understand that. Representation matters!

With that being said, I would definitely recommend Moana to anyone who is looking for a family friendly movie. The characters have an interesting depth to them. The animation is gorgeous to look at, and the musical numbers are a joy to the ears. As I mentioned above, I was smiling ear to ear as I watched it, and I hope it makes other viewers feel the same way.

Now I can’t wait for it to be released on Blu-Ray so I can add it to my collection!

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