Disney’s heading back to the sea this Thanksgiving weekend with the beauteous animated feature, MOANA. Inspired by culture, legends and folklore of the Polynesians and Pacific Islanders and the many islands of Oceania in the South Pacific, directors Ron Clements and John Musker together with co-directors Chris Williams and Don Hall, tap into that history and the connection between the people and the earth, particularly the sea, to deliver a story celebratory in the ancient history of navigation and wayfinding by a people very aware and proud of their sense of self. With this telling, we once again have a strong female protagonist in the character of MOANA (the Polynesian word for “ocean”, by the way); so strong that like most 15-year olds, she is at odds with her father, has precious bonds with her grandmother and longs to follow her dreams. In this case, those dreams mean an adventure that takes MOANA out into the sea as she seeks to return a long buried history to her people while delivering a ton of fun along the way, not to mention a lot of music and song. The result is magical.

At first blush, one is swept up in the tides of time and the sea as we hear the history of MOANA and her people from stories told by her Gramma Tala. As a tot, Moana is hypnotized by the sea and hears it call to her, something that is visually explored by Clements and Musker as they make the water an actual three-dimensional character within the film, a feat impossible when they last went under the sea with “The Little Mermaid.”

When I asked the directing duo about the water as a character, Clements quickly admitted, “The sea was beckoning us and we responded”. John Musker, on the other hand, talked about the technological growth that enables MOANA to come to life like never before. “[S]omeone asked us, could you have done that when you did The Little Mermaid and the answer was, well no, obviously. But actually even five years ago I think it would have been much harder to do it. The technology just keeps developing all the time and we knew pretty early on, when we were in the islands people talked about the ocean as if it were alive and they caressed it and they had these personal relationships with the ocean, so we knew we wanted the ocean to be a character in the movie. We knew we wanted to have this Lava Monster in the movie. We didn’t know how to do it and we talked to a lot of very smart people, in terms, and they didn’t know how to do it either. They were saying that this is like going to be really, really hard, but we think we can figure it out before the movie needs to come out and they did. So it was actually, there was sort of groundbreaking technology in this movie. There are a lot of things in this movie, even including what was done with the hair, Maui’s hair, Moana’s hair, there are things that were really breakthroughs in technology.”

And it’s this technology that leads MOANA to its animation style and look. While one can’t help but think of Pixar’s charming short “Lava” as we see Moana’s home island of Te Fiti rising from the sea, taking shape and becoming a tropical paradise with glorious flora and some adorable fauna, Clements and Musker raise the bar and then infuse the tale and the visuals with a living breathing Lava Monster fueled by the earth, the gods and a bad-boy demi-god named Maui who stole the heart of Te Fiti, thus creating the Lava Monster. Intricately designed growth patterns with pops of color and different shades of green populate MOANA’s island in spellbinding fashion.

Whatever it is that calls directors Musker and Clements to the water, may it long continue. Celebratory is the characterization of water and the sea as there is a three-dimensional clarity incorporating principals of refraction while lowering levels of reflection in order to see the true color of the water, while taking on distinctive shapes and texture, particularly a sparkling clarity with a rainbow of blue and aqua hues. Something new to the animation is the shimmer brought to the ocean, compounded with creating a sense of a solid yet fluid compound like liquid mercury with the added luminescence. A visual stunner. Much of the look of the water is also due to the work of cinematographer-lighting master Adolph Lusinsky who alters reflective properties of water to attain the true colors of the sea. Going under the sea is beyond breathtaking, particularly with the introduction of Tamatoa, a huge crab who covers his shell in all things shiny. (And if that doesn’t sound like a song!) A standout sequence with “the parting of the sea” which allows MOANA to walk through an impasse will have everyone recalling Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea in “The Ten Commandments.” Nice nod to a classic film legend.

Impressive is the variety of animation styles implemented within the folkloric telling of history. Water colors, parchment, vegetable toned inks and dyes, simple brush strokes akin to that leaves and grasses would render, all add historical depth to the otherwise brightly colored and polished film.

Color? Did I mention color? As if the blue skies, different blues and aquas of the water and greens of the island grass and trees isn't enough vibrancy, we go under the sea to the world of Tamatoa. Animators soar with the introduction of neons and black light effects but then punctuate that with the eye-popping detail and color of reefs unharmed by today's pollution and global warming. Movement of undersea life is, as to be expected, languid and authentic, most notably with Gramma Tala's spirit animal, the manta, which also benefits from the advanced technology for enhancing luminescence. But let's not leave out the Lava Monster which is extremely cool. So appreciated is that science is incorporated into working with the Lava Monster.

At the film’s outset, all will note the facial expressiveness is much advanced since “Frozen”. Nice to actually see brow furrows on Gramma Tala, as well as some severe skin crunching with Maui and Moana. As John Musker stated, what is now done to attain a realism with “wet” hair is outstanding.

Of course we have new animals and creatures to adore, but none moreso than the Kakamora. They are hilarious!!! Initially believing Pua the Pig would be a fave, think again as fighting coconuts take the cake here as adversarial sidekicks. With a nod to “Mad Max”, the battling Kakamora are out to stop MOANA from here mission of returning the heart of Te Fiti to the goddess and restoring her dying island. What MOANA doesn’t realize is that there’s a lot more at stake and happening than what she sees.

Also joining MOANA on her journey is Maui the demi-god, the one who originally stole the heart of Te Fiti. As Maui reluctantly joins MOANA in her quest, we learn more legend and lore of the once mighty Maui and his magical fishhook while comedic moments ensue between the two characters. Finding the right tone for Maui, Dwayne Johnson runs the gamut of emotions from happy to sad to arrogant to funny to brave. His vocal inflection is a welcome surprise. Fueling the comedy is MOANA’s rooster Heihei. Although brightly colored, he is not the brightest rooster in the coop which sets the stage for effortless gags for Maui. And take note. While Pixar claims John Ratzenberger as their lucky charm, Walt Disney Animation Studios have Alan Tudyk, here voicing Heihei.

Speaking of voicing, MOANA marks the debut of Auli’i Cravalho, herself 15-years old and a native Hawaiian. Cravalho truly embodies the character of Moana and brings real resonance to her. We hear the angst of a teenager trying to find herself and trying to please her parents, in this case with Moana’s father being the Chief, a job she is to soon undertake but has no interest to do so. As the film progresses, Cravalho’s vocal inflections are emotionally perfect, and often take on a whimsical hint when engaging with Johnson’s Maui.

And then there’s the music. With Lin-Miranda Manuel, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i behind the songs, and Mancina scoring, the result is another Disney musical masterpiece. But there are two songs that rise to the top - “You’re Welcome” as performed by Dwayne Johnson and, SHINY as performed by Jemaine Clement and a touch of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“You’re Welcome” is pure toe-tapping Hollywood musical, Broadway showstopper with a beat that's fun and peppy. Johnson infuses fun into his vocals with the song. (Yes, The Rock sings!) A reprise of “You’re Welcome” during end credits is a Lin-Manuel Miranda rap version, also highly entertaining. “Shiny” is another winner, and the vocal inflections Clement brings actually gives the song more than a hint of Tim Curry-Rocky Horror. Unfortunately, while the film is replete with the requisite schmaltzy yet beautiful ballads, don't look for any of them to knock it out of the park like "Let It Go" from “Frozen”. There's no real choral hook that kids or adults will glom onto.

Written by Jared Bush, the story has real charm and sweetness. And of course, another strong heroine. As mentioned, for being a loyal pig, there is not enough of Pua in the film. The telling of the Wayfinder history is entrancing, especially when MOANA heads into a hidden cave and beats the drum which will show her the past, and possibly the future. The excitement and suspense at what she is about to uncover is palpable, resulting in more than an "oooh aaah" moment. The unfolding relationship between Moana and Maui engages, but never quite reaches what I believe is its full potential. There is a standoffishness that never dissipates. Tongue-in-cheek dialogue is rich and fun with nods to classic Disney tropes (animals as sidekicks, being one) as well as running jokes about peeing which kids will just love - in both MOANA and in the preceding short, “Inner Workings”.

And stay THROUGH the credits. Not only are the end titles and credits lovely, there is plenty of fun stuff to be seen as the credits roll and then a surprise at the very end that will give you one final giggle. It’s those little things that add that something extra.

Directed by: Ron Clements and John Musker with co-directors Chris Williams and Don Hall

Written by Jared Bush

Voice Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Scherzinger


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