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AFI Film Review: MOANA

AFI Film Review: MOANA

“If you wear a dress and have a cute sidekick, you’re a princess.” So says the demi-God Maui to the unwitting Moana in the latest Disney princess film of the same name. You must appreciate the reflective sense of humor—Disney has moved decidedly away from the doting princess formula and into the realm of strong young women forging their own paths. But while Moana herself, like the execs, may resist the label of royalty, her pal Maui’s astute observation that she is still some sort of purported role model feels appropriate.

The self-awareness by the studio is, as always, refreshing. But while one welcomes Disney’s move into the 21st Century, good feminist values are not enough to cover an otherwise uninspiring and, at this point, somewhat formulaic plot. And thus, while Moana amazes with its voice talent, paints the most beautifully animated Disney movie—ever!—and dazzles with the refreshing tunes by the talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, the end product is no more inspiring than Moana is a traditional damsel in distress.

Moana opens (how else?) with the main character a young impressionable girl, groomed by her parents to be the future leader of her island-bound people, the Motuni. This being a Disney film and this girl having parents and a grandmother, the first thing you’re conditioned to expect is the demise of at least one forbearer. The unlucky one this time around is Moana’s grandmother, who before she goes on to an ethereal life urges Moana to look beyond the ocean reef that her people have hidden behind of for generations.

Moana’s island’s resources are rapidly depleting as a dark ash of death spreads through the ocean lands. Thankfully, nanny urges Moana to lead her insular people beyond their borders and look beyond for salvation (any similarity to certain political candidates is surely just a coincidence, right?). To do so she must return a mysterious gem to a mysterious island, for which she needs to enroll the help of the mysterious deity Maui.

The movie then proceeds like a video game, with the Pacific Islander princess (heretofore absent from the multinational Disney royal family) taking on one task after another, collecting items to help her in her quest and facing tougher and tougher challenges. Before she can reach game over her resolve will be tested and her interaction with Maui will grow testy, but not much else happens.

To be fair, the scenery is littered with cute and memorable characters—cuddly but devilish coconuts, a moronic but amusing chicken sidekick, and a demonic dancing crab that could be The Little Mermaid’s Sebastian’s evil twin. But Disney has set that as the floor for each of its stories, and the audience understandably expects much more.

Moana, voice by newcomer Auli’I Cravalho, and Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, form a cooperative but at some times rivalrous relationship. Their personalities clash and contrast, with both of them simultaneously declaring they don’t need the help of the other. But the connection, like the others Moana forges (or, rather, doesn’t), falls well short of the more emotionally compelling ones that have characterized recent successfully Disney movies, from Frozen to Big Hero 6 to Finding Dory.

It’s not that she’s missing a white knight—she’s not, and the fact that this film does not go anywhere near a Prince Charming (even Frozen had one) is amazing and refreshing. But the more modern Disney films have had compelling human bonds, be it between two sisters or between a teenager and his robot. Moana lacks that and so the film lacks an important layer. Despite all the beautiful moments, the ones that move across the oceans and land, Moana seems to be missing a human touch.

Don’t get me wrong, your eyes and ears will be glued to the screen at all times. I don’t think I’ve seen such supple, pristine animation from this or any studio. The sweeping scope of the story permits the animators to explore all sorts of landscape and to maximize their use of the color palette. And Lin-Manuel’s song are immediately relatable, even though they feel a tad more serious and a smidge less catchy than the tunes you’ve become accustomed to from Disney pics.

At the end Moana feels a bit disjointed in its message—is it to appreciate nature, to look beyond the self, or to be brave and curious one? Without a compelling connection between the heroine and another character, without a riveting moral of the story, the entire project ends up feeling simply like a light adventure movie, again, an arcade game-like challenge that will be completed when you finally get to the right castle.

The talent behind these filmmakers is too vast to completely discard this film. But while it is obviously better than, say, The Good Dinosaur, it exists, surprisingly, in a world unequivocally below the level of quality of some of its more recent brethren.

Grade: B-

About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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