'Moana' Footage Recap: Disney Embarks On A Beautiful, Crazy Voyage Through Ancient Oceania

2016's been pretty rough in a lot of ways, but one good thing about this year is that we're getting not one, but two Disney animated features. Zootopia, released in March, continued the studio's reputation for excellence, and next month Moana will try its best to carry on that torch.

You've surely seen trailers for Moana already, featuring newcomer Auli'i Cravalho as the Polynesian princess and Dwayne Johnson as Maui, the demigod who accompanies her on her quest to save her people. At the Festival People en Español this past weekend in New York, Disney showcased a whole lot more, sharing five gorgeously animated clips to give attendees a better sense of the excitement in store. 

Below the jump, read our detailed recap of the five clips and then scroll to the bottom for our general impressions on the Moana footage.

Moana - Teka (lava monster)

Moana Clip #1: The Story of Te Fiti & Maui

The first clip we saw was the very first scene of Moana. We open on what looks like an old Polynesian design, simplistic and 2D compared to Disney's usual glossy CG look. "In the beginning, there was only ocean," begins a voiceover, laying out the history behind the world of Moana. The voice tells of Mother Te Fiti, the benevolent creator of all life. But others began to covet her power for themselves, including Maui (Dwayne Johnson), the trickster demigod of the wind and sea.

The animation transitions into the more familiar Disney CG-animated look as we watch Maui stealing the Heart of Te Fiti. He shifts from bird to bug to lizard to person, racing through the jungle and flying over the ocean. But without her heart, the voiceover continues, Te Fiti began to crumble and eventually gave birth to a terrible darkness. Maui is surrounded by what looks like black smoke, and eventually faces Te Ka, the lava monster. In the ensuing conflict, both Maui's magic fish hook and the heart of Te Fiti are lost to sea.

The art gradually transitions back into what looks like a tapestry, and we realize we've been watching Tala (Moana's grandmother, voiced by Rachel House) telling stories to a group of children. She warns the kids that the darkness will spread until everyone finds themselves in the jaws of inescapable death. Most of the kids look terrified and one starts to cry, but a very young Moana, sitting front and center, looks delighted. Tala explains that the darkness can only be stopped when someone finds and restores Te Fiti's heart. (As you may have guessed, Moana will end up being that someone.)

Moana footage recap

Moana Clip #2: Moana Finds Her Destiny

Throughout the movie, Moana feels an urge to go out and explore the ocean. But her father, Chief Tui, believes the ocean to be too dangerous and wants all of his people, including his daughter, to stay on the island. Moana has some support, however, in Tala, who brings her to a dark cave. "You've been told all our people's stories but one," she says cryptically. When Moana asks, "What's in there?" Tala replies, "The answer to the question you keep asking yourself."

Moana ventures into the cave and finds a vast space with a blue waterfall on the other side. The entire area is scattered with ships. She approaches one, climbs aboard, and looks at the waterfall, apparently imagining herself sailing the seas. When she comes across a drum, she bangs it twice... and something bangs back. She bangs the drum again, and suddenly torches light up behind her. Moana looks around to see lots of tapestries covered with drawings of ships.

We flash back to the history of Moana's people. It's a bright, clear blue day, and a tribe is sailing across a sparkling turquoise ocean on a fleet of ships. They look happy, and they're singing "We Know the Way." The tune is sung by a chorus but you can hear the voice of Lin-Manuel Miranda (who composed the music with Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina). It's more of a scene-setting song a la "Frozen Heart" from Frozen, rather than a character- or plot-centric song a la "Let It Go" or "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman."

The tribe lands on the shore, and the scene skips forward to show another group of people setting sail from that same shore. We then return to Moana in the cave. "We were voyagers!" she shouts in exhilaration. She continues repeating the sentence as she runs back out of the cave.

Moana footage recap

Moana Clip #3: Moana Meets Maui

We saw a longer version of the clip released by Disney today, with a little more context. Animator Jorgue Ruiz explained to us that the scene takes place after Moana and Maui have been caught in a storm, only to wash up on a mysterious island. It's daylight, and Moana hears someone approaching. She realizes it's Maui, so she grabs Hei Hei, ducks behind her boat, and begins to practice her pitch to him.

Maui appears and spots the boat. "A boat, a boat! The gods have given me a boat!" He picks up the boat and sees Moana and Hei Hei underneath it. He's so startled he drops the boat. When he picks it up again, he sees Hei Hei buried up to his neck in the sand, but Moana has disappeared.

Then this happens:

Maui's response to all of this is to seem confused. "It sounds like you don't like me," he tells Moana. He claims he's been in exile for 1,000 because of the gift he gave humanity — the power to create life (i.e., the Heart of Te Fiti).

Moana footage recap

Moana Clip #4: Escape From Kakamora

Moana and Maui are on their boat, with a ship full of Kakamora ahead. Maui begins to steer away from the Kakamora, but Moana insists they need to confront the Kakamora. The little pirates have gotten ahold of Hei Hei, who's swallowed the heart of Te Fiti. Maui tells her, "Forget it, you'll never get it back," but over his objections Moana grabs the oar and boards the Kakamoras' ship.

She's immediately attacked by the Kakamora, who seem to be a warlike tribe. They're chasing after her and assailing her with blow darts. At one point, two of the pirates accidentally hit their leader, who looks pissed off before he passes out — it's a cute and funny moment, even in the midst of all the chaos. Eventually Moana finds Hei Hei and holds him with her teeth while she plots her escape. She throws a spear tied to a rope onto her on boat, and ziplines back.

Back on board, Hei Hei coughs up the Heart of Te Fiti. Moana catches it and lets out a triumphant, "Got it!" But then she and Maui look up and realize they're surrounded by several other Kakamora ships. After the clip played, animator Jorge Ruiz told us that the scene was heavily influenced by Mad Max: Fury Road.

Moana footage recap

Moana Clip #5: Moana Befriends the Ocean

Moana has a special relationship with the ocean, and in the last clip we saw we learned how it all began. Ruiz revealed this was actually the first scene the Moana team animated.

A very young Moana is playing alone in the sand on the beach. She spots a pretty conch shell in the water and moves to pick it up. The ocean pulls back just for Moana, and keeps doing so as she continues walking around picking up shells, so that at one point she's surrounded on most sides by a wall of water — almost like the parting of the sea in The Ten Commandments, but far smaller scale and far cuter. A fish that's been left behind jumps back into the water, and Moana watches in awe as a giant turtle swims by.

The water has a mind o its own, and it seems to like Moana. A wave dips down to help her, splash her playfully, and even toy with her hair. When a human voice calls for Moana, the ocean carries Moana back to shore on a wave. She stops to turn around and says "bye bye." The wave waves back. We fade into a sunset view of the same beach. Moana is now a teenager, and she looks fondly out at the ocean while she cradles a shell.

Moana footage recap

Moana Footage Reaction

Over the past few years, Disney's animated division has gained a very strong reputation and with good reason. Moana seems to continue that winning streak. The scenery looks stunning, and there seem to be as many different kinds of water in Moana as there were different variations on ice in Frozen. Moana shares the strong-willed idealism of other Disney heroes but seems like more of an action star than, say, Tangled's Rapunzel or Frozen's Elsa and Anna. That Mad Max-inspired sequence looks like thrilling stuff.

Maui looks downright obnoxious, in a rather endearing way. He's all arrogance and bluster, like a more good-natured Gaston, but with a good heart deep down. He's also covered in tattoos, but not just any old tattoos. Ruiz explained that one tattoo in particular, showing a "mini Maui," represented Maui's kinder, more honest side, serving as a Jiminy Cricket-style conscience. Johnson's definitely got Maui's charismatic, larger-than-life personality down, and he looks to be a very memorable character.

Moana also looks really cute. Hei Hei, the stupid rooster, seems to be the comic relief character, while Moana's pig best friend Pua fills the role of "adorable non-speaking animal character" (think Sven in Frozen or Maximus in Tangled). And while we've really only heard the one song so far, it's a pretty good one, catchy and joyful. The friendship between Moana and the ocean is the only part that really left me scratching my head, but I'm hopeful it'll be explained much better in the context of the full movie.