Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 103 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 8+. The latest from Disney focuses on the journey a chief’s daughter to restore health and prosperity to her island, and it subtly and smartly addresses environmental change and the human role in climate change in various ways that children will understand; there are various action sequences, including a few dangerous fights with monsters like gigantic crabs and lava beasts; a beloved character passes away; a flashback to a tragic scene where a character drowns; and some bathroom humor.
Disney adds another best-of-2016 movie to theaters this year with ‘Moana,’ the latest ‘princess’ film that addresses issues of identity and environment with grace, intelligence, and enthusiasm. ‘Moana’ demands to be seen in 3D, a spectacular visual affair that pairs perfectly with its smart story.
By Roxana Hadadi
In this banner year for Disney, with the successes of “Zootopia” and “Captain America: Civil War” behind them, “Moana” is a marvel—a spectacular movie that perfectly encapsulates the “family film” genre, demonstrating the power of visual animation and relatable storytelling without resorting to any narrative shortcuts or anachronistic humor to make its influence felt.
“Moana,” the studio’s latest “princess” animated film, manages to introduce a fierce, admirable protagonist; build an immersive, gorgeous world; and remind us all of the entertaining perfection that is Dwayne Johnson. This is the movie you should be sharing with your children and families this Thanksgiving holiday. Leave “Trolls” behind.
On the South Pacific island Motunui, everyone has a role to play. There are fishermen who work inside the lagoon that is formed by the reef surrounding the island; farmers who collect the coconuts and other produce that grow there; and basket weavers and other craftsmen who create their wares from the island’s natural resources.
The young Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho), the chief’s daughter, will one day be leader of the island, but she butts heads with her family constantly over how drawn she is to the water. While the chief forbids anyone to go past the reef, Moana yearns for the open ocean and for experiencing the world outside of her island.
And when the island seems to be dying—fruit rotting from the inside out, no more fish in the lagoon—it is clear to Moana that a legend from 1,000 years ago, of the goddess Mother Island having her heart stolen and lost by the demigod Maui, is finally being felt. With the environment crumbling around her and her community’s future in danger, Moana decides to leave the island, find the lost Maui, and force him to accompany her to Mother Island. “This tradition is our mission” sing the people of Motunui, but they will need new traditions if they want to survive.
But there are complications, of course, of varying gravity. Moana doesn’t know how to sail. When she meets Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, of “Central Intelligence”), she learns that he’s somewhat cowardly, more determined to find his mystical fish hook—the source of his own demigod power—than help her set Mother Island right. And they’re beset by a variety of villains, from coconut pirates with deadly blow darts to a gigantic crab that is obsessed with shiny things, who want to either capture them or eat them. It’s only if Moana and Maui work together that they’ll be able to fix the world around them, but collaboration is easier said than done.
Disney has a long track record with strong princesses, and even though Moana herself rejects that label (causing Maui to winkingly say “If you have a dress and an animal sidekick, you’re a princess”), the script does a great job showing us what inspires Moana about her upcoming responsibility and what gives her pause. Her eagerness to help her people but her concern that she’ll disappoint her family give the character great depth, and a scene where she considers a tower of stones, each signifying a ruler that came before her, has tangible emotional power.
But the film takes the time to build up Maui, too, providing him with a backstory—told by the moving tattoos that adorn his body, similar to the visual style of the ‘90s Disney film “Hercules”—that demonstrates how his desire to help people became his own downfall. Motunui and Johnson do an excellent job with their voice acting duties, and the sibling-like dynamic they build for their characters gathers a lot of affection from the audience.
Those characters also inhabit a stellar, painstakingly detailed visual world that demands to be seen in 3D. Practically everything about this film is gorgeous: the way the light sparkles off the water, capturing Moana’s attention; the tapestries the people of Motunui have woven to share their myths and legends; the glittering deluge of gold stuck in a monster crab’s back; the way the lava monster forms and reforms its body after attack by Moana and Maui. And how the film constantly manages to pay tribute to the culture of the South Pacific islands where the story is set, both through narrative details and visual cues, is a real sign of progress for Disney.
Disney animated films are almost constantly asking the question “Do you know who you are?” It’s what Rafiki asked Simba back in “The Lion King”; it’s what the Beast has to consider in “Beauty and the Beast”; and it’s asked here of Moana. The strength of one’s answer is in the knowledge that shapes it, and “Moana” does everything it can to share itself with its audience. How lucky for us that we get to be the recipients of such fantastic filmmaking.
Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.