In the late eighteenth century, when the mutineers of the HMS Bounty jumped ship, it’s not difficult to understand why. Of course, the harsh Captain Bligh had a lot to do with it, but once those seamen saw the beauty of the Polynesian islands and enjoyed the warm hospitality of the island people, it was as if the sailors had found their real-life Shangri-La, not in a fictional lost horizon but in the reality of the South Pacific.
In the new Disney animated musical Moana, its 56th, that same sense of warmth and beauty of those islands is wonderfully recreated and presented, and it’s done through some of the most outstanding use of computer imagery seen on the big screen in an animated feature to date. Moana is visually glorious.
“In the beginning,” narrates Gramma Tala (voiced by Rachel House), “There was only ocean.” And it’s all things ocean that makes this widescreen feature stunning. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements had worked together on the 2009 animated feature The Princess and the Frog, a film that intentionally stepped back to using the more traditional hand-drawn animation, but for Moana they worked with computers in order to fully capture the fluid look and movement of the water and the waves, and it truly is a cinematic wonder.
When the child Moana, princess daughter to the island chief, steps onto the beach and approaches the water’s edge, the ocean parts before her like the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, both protecting and inviting her to venture further. As the little girl stumbles forward, she views the undersea world around her, peering through the tall walls of water on either side as if the Pacific had suddenly become her personal aquarium, allowing her to see the beauty of underwater life in a way no one else on her island had seen before. The name Moana, we learn, means ‘ocean,’ and it’s clear that the little girl has a special, magical connection with all things water.
After an upbeat, percussive driven, introductory island song sung by Moana’s father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), the island leader tries to instill in his little girl the notion that remaining on land is the only way to be. “As long as we stay on our safe island,” he tells her, “All will be fine.” But Moana (Auli’l Cravalho) has wanderlust, and once she grows into an exuberant sixteen-year-old and discovers that her people were once voyagers, the inspiration to venture out becomes irresistible.
The story revolves around Moana’s ocean-going search for a legendary Polynesian demigod called Maui (Dwayne Johnson) who needs to be found in order to restore sustaining life back to her island world. Coconuts have gone bad and fish can no longer be found. The islanders will soon starve. “What if we fish beyond the reef?” the girl asks, but her father, whose fear of the water and of the unknown dominates all decisions, remains stubborn. “No one goes beyond the reef!” he declares.
But Moana’s eccentric grandma shares the same passion for the ocean as her granddaughter and encourages her grandchild to leave, to venture out and to find this mythical demigod in order to restore life back to Motunui Island. “The ocean chose you,” Gramma Tala insists, having witnessed that earlier, magical moment when the waters parted for the little girl. Disobeying her father’s orders, the sixteen-year-old steals a boat and, accompanied only by an idiot cross-eyed chicken, sets out across the ocean to find Maui.
Throughout Moana’s adventure, the animation draws on elements reminiscent of other, non-Disney features that continually add rich texture to both the visuals and the story-telling. When a fluorescent stingray guides Moana’s raft under a twinkling night-time sky, you’re reminded of the beauty of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. As the ocean gathers and lifts before Moana as if giving a helping hand with a personality of its own, it’s like James Cameron’s early use of computer imagery in The Abyss. There’s even an ocean-going nod to the recent Mad Max as tiny, comical, villainous creatures covered in coconut shells charge Moana’s craft in a series of giant, clumsy-looking wooden vessels that race to their own soundtrack of pulsating drums. And when Moana finally meets the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), his body is covered in tattoos that move and tell stories of their own in the tradition of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. The animation used on Maui’s body is hand-drawn, similar to the style used in Disney’s own 1997 animated feature Hercules where the three singing Muses spring to life from the designs on the side of Grecian vases.
The fun, upbeat songs are written by Opetaia Foa’l, Mark Mancina and Broadway’s Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, and there’s not a dull number, plus, with good humor, the film continually acknowledges that it’s a musical. When Moana is about to announce something important to Maui, he declares, “If you start singing, I’m gonna throw up.” And when Maui and Moana escape the clutches of an all-singing, giant crab in an undersea area known as the realm of monsters, the villainous crustacean calls out, “Hey, did you like the song?”
With a genuine, spectacular conclusion to Moana’s adventure that restores balance to her island and her people, the vibrant look of the film, its depiction of the ocean, its bright, colorful undersea world, and the lush look of the island and its tropical environment, are all truly remarkable. Disney’s Moana is a thing of beauty.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 113 Minutes Overall rating: 9 (out of 10)