REVIEW: “Moana” is Disney musical movie magnificence

Moana represents yet another cinematic and musical triumph for Disney animation. A visual wonder full of humor, heart and imagination, it breathes new life into the seemingly indefatigable Disney formula yet again.

Kids should love the film’s running gags and larger-than-life characters. Parents will most likely leave the film humming or even singing parts of the film’s musical numbers.

There’s something truly delightful for everyone here, just as there usually is in the best Disney fare.


What’s it about?

The titular character in Moana (pronounced “Mo-AH-nah”) is a 16-year-old girl living with her family and people on an island in the Pacific region we today know as Oceania. The daughter of her tribe’s chief (Temuera Morrison), Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) has been prepared all her life to someday lead her tribe.

But she has another calling, one only her grandmother, Gramma Tala (Rachel House, Whale Rider) understands and nurtures. Moana longs for the ocean, to navigate its vastness and explore its unknowns.

It’s a desire her chieftain father strictly curtails. His one steadfast rule, the one he’ll broach no discussion on, is “No one leaves the island.”

But then a darkness the tribe has no answer for begins to encroach upon their idyllic existence. Moana knows instinctively knows the answer lies in the ocean, with a tale Gramma Tala told her as a child.

She must find the demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), who long ago stole an ancient treasure and unleashed evil upon the world. Her plan is simple: have Maui return what he stole. Thus her people are saved and the world set right.

Ah, but if it were that simple, the film would be a lot shorter than its 113 minutes, wouldn’t it?

Moana one-sheet

56 and still going strong

Moana represents Walt Disney Animation’s 56th animated feature, not including the Pixar films. In many ways, it utilizes story and character elements that Disney has all but trademarked.

A young, high-spirited hero who doesn’t quite fit in his/her surroundings. An adventure that leads them away from home, to danger, excitement, and self-discovery. A new life discovered, a new sense of self and purpose forged from what was inside all along.

Yes, this type of story goes far beyond Disney movies. It’s one that can be found in the stories of the earliest of human civilizations’ myths and legends. It’s a part of our cultural DNA.

But it’s arguable that no one presents that kind of story in animated feature form better than Disney. Its also arguable that no Disney directing team has done it better in recent decades than Ron Clements and John Musker.

From The Little Mermaid to Aladdin to Hercules to The Princess and the Frog and now Moana, Clements and Husker seem to understand how to balance compelling storytelling with music, character, and humor. Here they have help from the directors of Big Hero 6 — Don Hall and Chris Williams are listed as co-directors — but Moana has the unmistakable grace and charm of a Clements and Husker Disney film.

If you count their previous Disney films among your favorites, you’re sure to fall in love with Moana.

Unforgettable original songs, score

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the lyricist behind most of Moana’s original songs is Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”). Working with world music star Opetaia Foa’i, Miranda delivers songs full of heart and, in the case of Maui’s solo number, “You’re Welcome,” humor.

Complementing Miranda and Foa’i’s catchy and compelling lyrics is the musical score provided by Mark Mancina (Tarzan, The Lion King). Mancina’s musical themes simply soar, particularly during the film’s musical numbers and action sequences.

Through it all is a palpable reverence and celebration of the sounds and rhythms of Oceania and Pacific music. Collectively, the musical work in Moana belongs in the conversation for the best in film in 2016 – watch for many nominations once awards season gets under way.

Cravalho, Johnson a great team

Moana also benefits from some truly inspired casting. Leading the way is 15-year-old Hawaiian Auli’i Cravalho.

A newcomer to movies, Cravalho impresses with both her singing ability and her acting. She imbues Moana with compelling strength of spirit, while still keeping her relatable. She’s a hero, but she’s still a teenage girl, at times in the film way out of her depth.

Sharing top billing with Cravalho is everyone’s favorite wrestler-turned-box-office-muscleman, Dwayne Johnson. Just about all of Johnson’s non-physical¬†talents are on display bringing Maui to life, from his comic timing and line delivery to his singing ability.

Put it another way. There’s virtually no chance you won’t like the smell of what the Rock is cooking here — it smells GOOD.

Rachel House and Flight of the Conchords‘s Jemaine Clement also deliver standout performances in Moana. All in all, it’s a remarkable ensemble, one as memorable as any assembled for a Disney animated feature.

Worth seeing?

Moana is the perfect feast for the eyes to take in over Thanksgiving weekend after the feast for your belly. Whether it’s the music or the laughs or the dazzling animation, there’s just so much to enjoy here as a thrilling escape into cinema.

Beyond even those elements which Disney often does so well, Moana is rich with the vibrant beauty and storytelling traditions of Oceania. It’s well researched and lovingly crafted, and immerses you in a world and culture that you’ll want more of once the credits roll.

See it, and see it in 3D. Seeing all the beauty and majesty of the ocean brought to life as only Disney and CGI can is worth the premium price.


Featuring the voices of Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, Nicole Scherzinger, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.
Running Time: 113 minutes
Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.