I went into “Moana” with very little knowledge about the movie. I knew that everyone was losing their cool over Disney’s latest offering, some declaring it to be the best Disney film since “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and others claiming it to be a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. Seriously, people are raving about this movie.
But, still I didn’t really know much about it. Every trailer I had seen was pretty vague on what the movie was actually about, and most focused on a secondary character, Maui the demigod played by Dwayne Johnson, a fact that irritated me a bit. The lead character seemed to be getting downplayed at every turn.
Auli’i Cravalho makes her Hollywood debut as Moana, a girl whose heart lies beyond the shores of her Polynesian island. She’s the daughter of the island’s chief, Tui (Temuera Morrison), who’s trying to train her to lead the village one day. The ocean calls to Moana, but her parents forbid her to travel beyond the reef, for safety’s sake.
Gramma Tala (Rachel House) tells of a curse that has befallen the world. Many moons ago, Maui stole the heart of a powerful island goddess, Te Fiti, dooming the Earth, bringing darkness to the islands. Maui was banished shortly after. Legend says that a human will find Maui and sail across the ocean to return Te Fiti’s heart and basically save all of existence. Spoiler alert, the person tasked with this grand venture is Moana.
In many ways, “Moana” feels a lot like a lot of other Disney films. There’s the animal sidekick that tags along on the adventure; in this case it’s Heihei, a mentally challenged chicken “voiced” by “Firefly” alum Alan Tudyk. (The cute little pig plastered across marketing campaigns really isn’t that big a character, but he’s ridiculously adorable.) Maui is the wisecracking sidekick. And then there’s Moana herself. She’s a distinct character, but her story is still one we’ve seen before: a young girl who must leave home and discover who she truly is.
Having said that, there are still things about “Moana” that make it magical and truly unique. There’s beauty in both the story and its graphic elements. The film’s island setting is absolutely gorgeous, for one. The ocean is a character in itself that adds a certain sense of wonder to the story. The level of adventure is kicked up a few notches, as well, as Moana and Maui face obstacle after obstacle, including a ginormous lava monster.
Even more magical is the film’s soundtrack, which features original lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius behind Broadway smash hit “Hamilton.” Almost every song knocks it out of the park, thanks to his unique influence. (While I write this review, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on Spotify and I’ve had some of these songs on repeat, like Moana’s powerful anthem, “How Far I’ll Go.” Seriously, Cravalho has crazy good vocal skills, and I’m in awe of her. The song’s also been nominated for a Golden Globe.)
Even Johnson gets in on the singing thing with a ridiculously catchy tune called “You’re Welcome.” Miranda is there in every line, and it’s impossible for the song not to crawl its way into your brain, leaving you humming it afterward.
Unfortunately for “Moana,” there are things that don’t work as well for me. One of the main culprits is a jewel-encrusted crab named Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” fame). He lives in the Realm of Monsters and delivers a song called “Shiny.” Miranda has gone on record saying the song is a “glam-rock” ode to the late David Bowie. Be that as it may, the song and scene feel a bit like an acid trip gone wrong. I couldn’t decide who I expected to appear first: a heffalump and woozle or Tim Curry decked out as Frank-N-Furter. Perhaps a heffalump in a corset and fishnets to combine the two. It’s all sorts of wrong, and you’d swear that it was a leftover song from an earlier movie. It doesn’t fit this world as established in any other element.
This isn’t the first time Disney has gone a little astray with big numbers or villains. I’m still haunted by Christopher Walken’s portrayal of King Louis in this year’s remake of “The Jungle Book.” And in this one, the entire scene with Tamatoa and that awful song just feels out of place. And when the scene is given a black light design, it just gets worse. So much worse that it makes you feel more pessimistic about this film than it deserves.
I also worry that Moana doesn’t really stand out very much in this one. Honestly, Johnson’s Maui pulls the focus from her again and again. He’s supposed to be the “sidekick” but his character is just too big to be secondary. I like Moana, but she should really be the strongest element in the film, and I just don’t feel like she is.
Bottom line: “Moana” is good and has enough magic to overcome an evil crab’s ways. Use that scene to visit the concession stand, though. You don’t want to push it.