Review: 'Moana' Is An Enchanting Adventure Meshing Disney's Traditional Magic With Rich Culture

With several decades of animated movies in its history, it's a wonder that Walt Disney Animation can still churn out movies that feel as refreshing and satisfying as their latest computer animated delight, Moana. By meshing their traditional magic and narrative tropes with a stunning change of scenery and rich, exotic culture that has never been featured so prominently or respectfully in family film, Disney has crafted a dazzling adventure that the whole family can enjoy.

Read our full Moana review after the jump.

Newcomer Auli'i Cravalho expertly plays our title character, the daughter of Chief Tui, leader a small village on the island of Motunui. But the movie begins about a thousand years before that as we hear the legend of the island goddess Te Fiti. She created all the islands and the life that lives on them thanks to the power of her heart, a glowing green pebble. But that power was taken away when a mischievous, shapeshifting demigod known as Maui stole her heart so that he might give the power of creating life to the humans. But as he makes his escape with the stone, a gigantic lava monster named Te Ka thwarts him, losing the pebble in the vast ocean.

Why does this matter? Well, without Te Fiti, all of the Pacific Islands will be left to rot away by a darkness spreading across the ocean, and that's the challenge that a 16-year old Moana faces as she is preparing to step into her father's shoes as the leader of their people. This serves as the catalyst for Moana to finally follow through on the inherent urge she has had her whole life to venture past the barrier reef surrounding her island, something forbidden by her father after an ocean journey of his own resulted in the death of a close friend. But encouraged by her grandmother, Moana learns the only way to save the island and her people is to venture past the barrier reef, find the demigod Maui, and force him to return the heart of Te Fiti.

Helping Moana is the ocean, which came alive in front of her as a baby and provided her with the heart of Te Fiti. Though her toddler hands dropped it in the sand, her grandmother has kept it safely in a necklace until Moana was old enough to make the choice to become who she was meant to be. As this story plays out, we become ingrained in the Polynesian culture at the heart of the movie. Rather than Moana being held back only by the arbitrary rules of her parents, she instead has her life dictated by the traditions of her culture, something that has rarely been so richly depicted in a Disney movie, let alone by the families of Disney princesses.


It's this detail that makes the more traditional elements of a Disney movie feel less derivative than they otherwise might. There are even tongue in cheek references to the usual tropes of these kind of movies that show Disney knows exactly what they're doing. That kind of humor and much more is consistently provided by the cocky demigod Maui, who makes for a sidekick not unlike Genie in Aladdin, though not quite as helpful to our heroine or as skilled with his magical fishhook that has been kept away from him for centuries. Thankfully, the voice of Dwayne Johnson makes him extremely charming, even in his moments where he's being kind of a jerk.

But the star of this movie is Moana, a young girl stopping at nothing to save her island, stay true to her people and herself, even against her father's wishes, and discover her destiny. There's no prince to rescue Moana and her people. In fact, she never even lets the demigod Maui do the heavy lifting, taking seemingly insurmountable tasks into her own hands, including taking charge a spectacular sequence that feels like Mad Max: Fury Road meets Pirates of the Caribbean where she must get back the hart of Te Fiti from a swarming band of tiny but deadly pirates.

While Frozen still used a love interest as the driving motivation for one of its main characters, only to be blasted out of the water by the love that is shared between sisters, Moana doesn't need any romance at all to help complete her story. Moana is the tale of a young woman who is strong in the face of danger, competent and unshaken when confronted with a challenge, full of compassion and love. Even though the idea of her being "chosen" by the ocean is present, Moana still has to actively choose to accept the responsibility she's been given, making her even more of a proper hero, and someone for young girls to emulate and admire.


We haven't even gotten to the extraordinary animation, bringing to life lush landscapes with eye-popping colors. The way Moana's hair flows in the wind is a technical marvel, not to mention all the moving water that is unmistakable from the real thing. The more fantastical visuals are nothing short of mesmerizing either, including a giant shiny, gold plated crab and a towering lava monster.

However, perhaps the most satisfying part of Moana is the unforgettable soundtrack. With original songs by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, collaborating with South Pacific fusion songwriter Opetaia Foa'i, this soundtrack has melodies that will rival the catchy tunes that Frozen brought to the table. The soundtrack for Moana is more thoroughly satisfying, featuring an entire album of songs that you won't be able to get out of your head rather than just a few standout songs. Never before have I felt such an immediate urge to listen to the soundtrack after walking out of the theater.

Moana features flairs of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, which shouldn't be surprising with John Musker and Ron Clements on board as co-directors, but it also has the modern touch of Big Hero 6 helmers Chris Williams and Don Hall. Their collaboration makes the movie irresistible, always staying true to the magic that Disney has been bringing to theaters for decades while still offering up a contemporary twist on their familiar formula. Moana just might the best movie that Walt Disney Animation Studios has made in over a decade./Film rating: 10 out of 10