AFI Fest Film Review: ‘Moana’ Rides a Colorful Wave of Quintessential Disney Magic

moana-posterWalt Disney Pictures’ Moana” glistens with exuberance and heart, providing a cinematic vacation paradise of utmost necessity. Politics aside, the country needs the joyousness of “Moana” more than ever, and thankfully this heroine is bred to uplift. Riffing off the classic Chosen One narrative, “Moana” utilizes character reflection to subvert the arrogance that typifies this trope. Nailing her debut performance with dynamite vocals and youthful tenacity, Auli’i Cravalho is the ancient Disney Princess of today. Moreover, Jared Bush’s simple yet progressively tuned script features a female lead with “Mary Sue” skill sets yet none of the infallibility. In fact, it’s Moana’s self-doubt and blind faith in idolatry that holds her back from becoming a hero for humanity.

The film wastes no time dispensing its version of Polynesian mythology, captivating audiences with a rich influx of culture. Thousands of years ago, a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole a precious stone from the island of Te Fiti. This stone, known as the “Heart of Te Fiti,” serves as the island’s life-force. However, its mystical powers make it a weapon of desire, thus seducing the zealous demigod. When removed by Maui, the entire archipelago becomes engulfed in darkness. Worse, a creature made solely of fire rises as custodian of Te Fiti, guarding it against anyone attempting to return the “Heart” to its rightful place. A prophecy foretells of a hero in possession of the “Heart” who tracks down Maui before the evil consumes Polynesia.

(Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)
(Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

Cut to present, and the Chieftain of Motunui (Temuera Morrison) is in the midst of transferring leadership to Moana, the rightful heir. Noticing the harvest is rotting at a rapid rate, Moana realizes Maui’s transgression is no mere fable. The consequences of his theft will soon wash upon the shores of Motunui, enveloping it in irreversible decay. Headstrong and determined to protect her village, Moana is reminded by her grandmother (Rachel House) of a fateful childhood encounter. The ocean made Moana its ambassador in infancy to stop the impending doom, and now it’s come to collect. Venturing beyond the reef, an inexperienced Moana sets sail to seek Maui’s aid – by force if necessary.

Accompanied by an adorable idiot rooster named Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), Moana is so fixated on her mission that fear remains elusive. It’s after she meets the brash and reluctant Maui that her spirits begin to fall. Johnson imbues Maui with a juvenile impetuousness that intentionally frustrates. The film would be doing Moana a disservice if Maui was a stock hero with robust morality and irresistible charm. Instead, audiences are planted firmly in Moana’s corner, aggravated by Maui’s stubbornness and narcissism. The upside is that after their initial contentiousness, Maui and Moana have an easy rapport that jettisons the film’s value. Johnson and Cravalho share a mutually respectful chemistry that powerfully transcends, tearing down gender hierarchies in the process. Despite not being a demigod, Moana finds herself on equal footing with Maui by film’s end.

(Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)
(Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures)

“Moana” offers one breathtaking sequence after the next, two of which belong in the Disney hall of fame. The first pays homage to “Mad Max: Fury Road” by featuring an epic chase on the high seas. The beating war drums that accompany this relentless pirate assault are clearly inspired by George Miller’s masterpiece. The second is a psychedelic encounter with a colossal crab named Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement, who is utterly fabulous). Serenading his captors with an operatic tune of David Bowie-esque pizzazz, Tamatoa is Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” on LSD. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker entrance audiences with an array of vibrant color that makes disengagement impossible.

While “Moana” doesn’t chart any new routes in the originality department, it provides a fireplace of human warmth. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s co-written songs are as melodically soothing as they are unforgettable. Also, Cravalho’s stunning vocal range on power ballad “How Far I’ll Go” will empower even the most timid of viewers. Finally, the anthemic “We Know the Way” pulsates with communal harmony and adventurous drive. A grander underwater experience than this year’s “Finding Dory,” “Moana” is an Oscar-worthy animated entry headlining feminism with splendor.

“Moana” is distributed by Walt Disney Pictures and will be released on Nov. 23

Grade: (★★★½)

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About Joseph Braverman

My name is Joseph Braverman. I am 24 years old and a recent graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a Bachelor of Arts in Film and Digital Media. I love watching and analyzing films and television shows. I have a huge obsession with "Best Of" or "Top #" lists. I am currently living in Los Angeles, CA, trying to become enmeshed in the movie industry scene in any way possible. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @JBAwardsCircuit.