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Moana ***

Disney’s latest is a visually stunning feast for the eyes.

Is it worth $10? Yes 

Disney animation made a big comeback a few years ago with “Tangled” and the even more popular “Frozen.” Those films rebooted the “Princess” line of Disney films that featured strong heroines as protagonists, a tradition that goes all the way back to Walt Disney’s (and the world’s) first feature-length animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (1937). Now comes “Moana,” which is the studio’s latest addition to these “Princess” films. But how, if at all, does it match up to them? Short answer: Quite well, actually.

Taking place in the Pacific isles and involving Polynesian folklore, the story focuses on Moana Waialiki (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho), a chief’s daughter being groomed by her father (Temuera Morrison) to take rule of their idyllic island nation. Their peaceful lifestyle is disrupted after the island’s crops and fish begin to die out. It turns out that the actions of a demi-god, Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), from a 1000 years earlier are to blame. Moana sets out on an epic(-ish) adventure across the ocean, and, with the eventual help of Maui, attempts to course correct his wrong-doing. 



I’ll start with the obvious. The visuals in “Moana” are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Everything, from the people, to the locations, to the water – especially the water, is rendered with eye-popping detail.  At one point, and this is not an exaggeration, the movie actually gave me chills. As a large, bio-luminescent, spirit-stingray (yes, you read that right) appeared, skirting just underneath a clear, moonlit ocean, I could feel the hair on my arms stand up. If you’re planning on seeing the movie for the visuals alone, it will be money well spent.

Visuals aside, the movie has a fair share of other charms. It is rather funny, and I found myself laughing unashamedly more than a couple times. There are also some clever touches here and there such as Maui’s tribal tattoo that comes to life and acts like his conscience. And a (albeit, all too brief) visit to a monster realm teases some visual imagination.

The soundtrack is also worthy of note. Yes, this is a musical (…again. Do all Disney animated films have to be musicals?), and the soundtrack by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Broadway’s “Hamilton” fame), Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina, with its appropriately Polynesian tinge, is rather good. True, some of it is sonic wallpaper, but there are some standout moments. There is, of course, a dramatic “Let It Go” style showstopper, and The Rock also acquits himself nicely with a ditty of his own, but it’s a David Bowie-esque glam-pop number sung by the deep-baritoned Jemaine Clement as a giant, monster crab (again, you read that correctly) that truly tickled my fancy.


The story itself is fine, and it hits the appropriate beats at the appropriate times, but it does take a little too long to get going. A good chunk of the movie has Moana fretting about choosing between staying put and ruling her island nation or following her natural instincts and taking to the waters. Look, we all know she’s going to go out to sea on an adventure, so why spend so much time hemming and hawing about whether or not she will? It unnecessarily slows down the pace and just takes time away from the really good stuff, Maui and the adventure.

And In the interest of honesty, I must admit that while I enjoyed the film, it’s just a little hard for me to get too excited about any movie made less by artistic impulse and more by committee. With four directors (!) and at least eight writers (though only Jared Bush is credited for the screenplay), “Moana” feels, like most animated films from giant studios these days, a little too streamlined, safe, and by the numbers. Yes, only a fool would expect more from a modern, animated Disney film, but a fool am I. As such, even though I liked the film, I was oddly disengaged from some of the experience, and I simply couldn’t keep my mind from wandering as I was watching it.

But that’s just me. I honestly can’t find too much fault with the film otherwise. My curmudgeonly nature aside, it is a beautiful and often funny movie, and the end even has a little unexpected and welcome twist. If you already want to see it, I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed. If Disney movies aren’t your thing, though, this one’s not going to change your mind. But even then it still might be worth a look, if only to have the images make sweet, sweet love to your eyeballs.

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