The anticipation for Disney’s newest holiday theatrical release is an annual feeling of avid Disney fans. This year, Disney chose Moana to make its theatrical debut on November 23. Since its release, the movie has snagged a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture—Animation and made $145 million dollars in box office sales during its first 3 weeks in theaters. After personally seeing the film, the movie clearly has high and low points.
Moana’s biggest achievement for me was its emphasis on Polynesian culture. When Disney announced the existence of the film, I, like many Disney fans, took immediate notice to Moana being the first non-white princess in a major Disney film since Tiana from the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog. Aside from the importance of adding diversity to their leading ladies list, Moana fully embodies the Polynesian culture with the inclusion of dance, garments, art and folkloric storytelling throughout the film.
Its music is phenomenal, which is no surprise since the scores and songs were created thanks to the talents of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i. As expected from Disney, every note and lyric elevates the moods of the characters and the moments they encounter; of all the songs, I’m not surprised that “How Far I’ll Go” led Moana to get a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song.
Moana’s attention to detail is best used for its natural scenery animation. The whimsical effects of the water, and not just the personified ocean aspect, made me believe I was out in the vast sea myself. The plant details on Te Fiti’s overall design are especially breathtaking. Not since Fantasia 2000 have I seen such vibrant and well-planned nature animation in a Disney production.
For all the hits in the movie, there are handful of choices that hindered the film. Though the fab crab Tamatoa’s song “Shiny” has been used by Disney as a film sneak peek clip and the advertising hook for Moana’s limited 3D release, the song has the same level of importance to the film as “Fixer Upper” did in Frozen. Whereas the scene that the song is matched with has some meaning, the song feels more like a pacing tool to help the script transition to the next scene. After all, Tamatoa doesn’t become a returning threat to Moana and Maui; he only reappears at the end of the credits for a Disney pop culture joke.
Another thing Moana could have been without is Maui’s princess fourth wall joke: “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” Ever since Frozen’s “You can’t marry someone you just met” line got critics talking about Disney recognizing the absurdity of its traditional love story formula, Disney has been intentionally slipping in lines that poke fun at itself. In Zootopia, for example, Chief Bogo’s statement of life not being a musical number was humorous but was blatantly obvious as to why it was being said. Hence, Maui’s need to address the fact that Moana is in fact a Disney princess didn’t leave me laughing but helped me understand I’m going to have to get used to these Disney self-awareness lines in their upcoming films.
However, my biggest disappointment with the film was how it reminded me too much of Disney’s other film Pocahontas. Moana’s father is trying to help her become responsible enough to rule and protect her people one day; Pocahantas’s father is trying to help her become responsible enough to rule and protect her people one day. The framework toward the end of Moana’s song “How Far I’ll Go” reminds me of Pocahantas’s “Just Around the Riverbend.”
Neither Moana nor Pocahantas would have been able to face their biggest feats if it had not been for the encouragement and strength from their grandmothers (yes, I am counting Grandmother Willow as Pocahantas’s grandmother). Moana’s two animal sidekicks were a bird and a land animal, just as Pocohantas has. In short, every unique aspect of Moana’s storyline was triggered by a recycled element in Pocahontas.
Moana may not have the most unique storyline in all of Disney’s films, but its visuals and music make it a Disney film definitely worth experiencing in the theater. However, I personally would rather invest my money in bringing home a copy of the soundtrack than one of the film.