Moana. 2016 may have been trash, Disney was not to blame.

Rating: 3/4

With a team of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Auli’i Cravalho, Moana is a worthy addition to the canon of Disney princesses. 

It “only” took 61 years, with some “minor” setbacks (Doctor Strange), but Disney has been “allowing” cultures to portray their stories, i.e. Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, and now, Moana. Since the premier of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney princesses have typically been of the pale variety. When they’re somewhere else on the color wheel, their story is typically hijacked for whitewashing purposes, ahem, Pocahontas.

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Moana does much to atone for previous mistakes by featuring a Polynesian cast. The society depicted is a proud Island and sailing civilization. The inhabits are fit rather than the “dream” model bodies of other Disney princesses.

Much like Mulan, Moana feels trapped by the expectations of social and gender class. She’d rather be an explorer than adding her stone to the top of her island’s mountain. She is given an excuse to leave when the plants on her island begin to die. The demigod Maui’s selfishness left the world to be taken over by Te Kā when he carelessly stole the heart of the Goddess Te Fiti a millennia ago.  In an attempt to save her village, she sets sail to find Maui and restore the Goddess’ heart.

For the most part, the film is visually stunning. The Polynesian terrain, flora, and water is often the star of the film more so than any of the songs. Think Finding Dory, except with greater attention paid to ripples and waves, even the froth of splashes is given its own distinct movement. The ocean becomes a character due to adept and realistic recreation. And through comedic moments, like Maui throwing Moana from the boat, and her returning from the water like a tablet out of a Pez dispenser.

The largest disappointment is the music. Here, Miranda was tasked with continuing his Hamilton charm. He often fell flat. The critical issue with the songwriting is Miranda’s insistence to write Disney-esque songs. Many of his offerings are cliched representations of what he thinks a Disney song should sound-like. Often, outside songwriters have created best when they have stayed within their own style, i.e. Randy Newman and Toy Story. Newman isn’t Disney. He is, however, comfortable with his music.

Only one song offers the glimmer of why Miranda was approached, “You’re Welcome.” Dwayne Johnson is tepid during the first few bars. However, he and the song open-up to an expansive chorus with resplendent horns. The bridge features Johnson rapping, while a banner of Maui’s tattoos dance in the background. If you’re a fan of Hamilton, it’s the moment you’ve been waiting for since the start of the film. The issue here? The Rock is the one doing the singing. Dwayne Johnson is no singer, so he can only do with what he has. Miranda is a songwriter. I don’t know what his excuse is.

The character, Maui, leaves much to be desired. There was potential here. However, his representation is static. The person you see in the first five minutes is there in the last. It felt like Disney could have done more than present a damaged character, a buffoon and brute really, and leave us to judge. It’s a sign that Disney is using the well-worn, finding one’s self through an adventure metaphor to do the work, while negating character building through dialog…and…you know, character building.

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For all of its faults, Moana is an enjoyable 100 minutes. It may not be as socially inquisitive as Zootopia, but not every Disney movie has to be, I would just like them to be. However, this film can survive on the Rock flexing his…..

Check out my previous review of Arrival.

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