Moana: Disney’s New Not a Princess Plays it Too Safe

In its never-ending quest to extract as much cash as possible from pre-teen girls of every conceivable ethnic background, Disney adds Polynesian princess Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) to its ever growing stable. Excuse me, “chief’s daughter.” Moana states very explicitly, and quite indignantly, that she is NOT a princess. Her companion, demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) immediately calls BS on that denial. This exchange is just one of many instances where Disney sheepishly admits to the audience that they’re just following the usual formula. They know it, you know it, we’re all in on it together, so just sit back and look at the pretty scenery.

And the scenery is pretty. More than pretty, actually, it’s gorgeous. The water effects are some of the best I’ve seen in any medium, and the islands are stunning. The animators succeeded in creating a visually beautiful paradise. I found myself wishing I could visit those islands and swim in that ocean.

Unfortunately, the people didn’t turn out nearly so well. The animators attempted to achieve a high level of realism but landed squarely in the middle of uncanny valley. Too real for the brain to accept as cartoons, but not real enough to accept as living people, the result was odd and uncomfortable.

The musical score is usually a Disney strong point, but this one was merely serviceable. It worked well enough while the movie was playing, particularly a few numbers set against beautiful sweeping vistas, but despite the clear attempt to create some show-stoppers, none of the music was particularly memorable. I can name, sing (poorly), or hum dozens of songs from Disney films that I’ve seen over the years, but I could not remember a single song from this movie 10 minutes after I left the theater. This might actually be a good thing if you’re a parent with a child who insisted on belting out “Let It Go” until your ears bled.

As already alluded to, the story is a by-the-numbers empowerment/coming of age tale. Moana must leave her sheltered island home to go on a quest to retrieve powerful long-lost artifacts in order to halt the spread of a malevolent force threatening to destroy her home and her family. We’ve seen it many times before, and Moana adds nothing to the formula.

This would be ok if the story was exciting or even interesting, but it’s not. Moana moves from point A to B to C in an entirely predictable fashion. Worse, there is no tension whatsoever. The ocean is introduced very early as a sentient character helping Moana on her way. Unfortunately, the ocean intervenes so heavy-handedly and so frequently that it quickly becomes apparent that Moana could hardly fail if she tried. The ocean literally hands her one of the centuries-lost artifacts less than ten minutes into the movie. And the number of times she is saved by improbable random events pushes the limits, even for a Disney movie. Moana herself is kind of dull, and is overshadowed by Maui, who tries too hard to be cool. (To be fair, what do you expect from Dwayne Johnson).

The film also relies entirely too heavily on 3 overused gags. The ever-present ocean has already been mentioned. Maui’s tattoos are sentient and able to move, and while it is initially amusing to watch him argue with his tattoo, it gets old pretty fast, and it doesn’t stop. Finally, there is an addle-brained chicken that just does the same stupid stuff over and over and over. Moana had a second animal sidekick (a pig) that was far more interesting, but, unfortunately, he got left behind on shore and was only on screen at the very beginning and end.

If you stick around through the credits, the lamest after-credits scene to date will be your final impression as you walk out of the theater. Even worse, that scene references and reminds you of a much, much better movie.

In the end, this is a serviceable, mildly entertaining, but forgettable film that children will likely enjoy and parents won’t find too painful. Take the kids, roll with it, look at the gorgeous scenery, and be happy the soundtrack won’t be stuck in your head for six months.

Overall rating – 6/10

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