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Moana Review

Moana beats the drum of female empowerment for so many young girls who deserve it now more than ever.

Now – more then ever – maturing young girls need positive female heroes to idolize, and with that perspective in mind, Moana summons an epic adventure primed to bolster the independent pride of future “nasty women” everywhere. This should come as no shock – Disney has been nurturing strong-willed princesses since cartoons were invented (figure of speech) – but Moana‘s importance shouldn’t be shrugged off (nor is she a princess, she’d remark).

Lin-Manuel Miranda brings island spirit to drum-beating musical numbers that herald the exuberance of life’s unexpected journeys, pushing young minds and hearts to follow passion, not practicality. Audiences of all genders have yet another animated Disney dazzler to embrace here, but Moana speaks specifically to a gender that faces preconceived barriers, and with enough strength to break them down.

Auli’i Cravalho voices the hula-dancing Moana, daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). It’s Moana’s destiny to remain chained to her home territory, where she’ll one day serve as leader. Moana wants to make her family proud, but has distracting dreams of her own – all of which involve sailing past their reef boundary. She yearns to explore the unknown, but Chief Tui forbids Moana from any such life.

That’s until a darkness reaches Moana’s island, much like her grandmother’s stories foretold. According to Gramma Tala (Rachel House), a “chosen one” is to locate a demi-god named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) so he can return a stone – The Heart Of Te Fiti – back from where he stole it. Little does Moana know, the ocean bestowed The Heart Of Te Fiti upon her at a young age, anointing her the chosen one. With the fate of her tribe hanging in the balance, Moana sets out to find Maui and restore peace – ready for whatever coconut monsters and demon realms await.

Out of an eight-person writer’s room (screenplay credit to Jared Bush, story credits to seven more) comes another exemplary showcase of Disney’s biggest strength: affecting storytelling and the importance of family. Four directors expose an exotic island community for a different take on culture and passion, yet still mine resonating themes that anyone can understand.

Moana’s wishes of voyaging embrace the wonder that children look forward to, while Cheif Tui’s persistent denial mimics a father’s overprotection. Such are the emotions of parents who wish to always shield their kin, but young ones are also shown the happiness found in a fulfilling life guided by desire. New waters aren’t charted via story, but Moana has a finger on the pulse of defining encouragement like most big-picture Disney narratives.

It’s the music that gets us through early story-building that tell of legends and rapidly mature Chief Tui’s daughter, since we first start with an adorable little baby Moana (melts your damn heart). From there, she blossoms into the torn wayward soul who battles against seaward dreams for the sake of family. It’s nothing terribly fresh, yet when told through song, Moana’s maturation pounds with momentous presence and rip-roaring rhythms.

Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina are just as integral in composing memorable songs crafted for each character’s persona, in addition to Hamilton superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda. Maui’s introduction jam reeks of ego and zero humility, sized perfectly for the demi-god’s braggadocios charisma. Then there’s Jemaine Clement as the greedy crustacean Tamatoa, an image-obsessed monster who sings about all the shiny things he’s bedazzled his shell with. Other songs channel the primitive energy of chants, drums and native dance, but there are still those few showstoppers you’d expect from such talented musicians – not to ignore Cravalho’s leading pipes, either.

Moana breezes along until The Rock’s Maui shows up, where – to no surprise – tribal wisdom becomes something bigger. Maui’s confident approach to heroism makes for a compassionate student/teacher relationship with Moana, and his living tattoos provide some humorous man-and-ink conversations. It’s a much needed boost of energy that also brings danger by way of villains who are after The Heart Of Te Fiti, the best of whom are little coconut creatures directly inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road.

Yes, you read that right. The first adversaries Moana and Maui face are tiny little baddies who wear coconuts for armor (war paint included), riding on these gigantic war-rig pirate ships. There are a few other memorable encounters throughout Moana – Clement’s neon mid-dance beatdown, a lava giant, oceanic hurdles – but give me Mad Max coconut monsters in a spinoff and I’ll be a happy, immature buffoon.

Visually, Moana shines like a diamond at night. As a novice wayfinder, the titular soon-to-be chief must use the stars to guide her either forward or back home. Constellations shine bright, reflecting off the electric blue ocean clear in all its natural purity. Villager’s wavy Troy Polamalu hair blows in the wind like it’s been treated with Head and Shoulders shampoo, separating each lock as layered textures that highlight the tremendous detail Disney animators achieve. The visual appeal here is no less than in any previous chart-topping effort, and we even get a stylistic reprise by way of images that come to life on drawn paper whenever Gamma Tala spooks children with her supposed tall-tales (same goes for Maui’s emotive tattoos).

Moana gets my full backing as a pro-female, pro-empowerment megaphone even if scripting may be slight at first (and intermittently), because there’s a message at play here that’s too powerful to ignore. A story so sweet and uplifting, tears formed at random as Moana fought for everything she loved. It’s scary to sail out past the reef (move out from home, chase success, set lofty goals), but how else are you supposed to know what’s waiting for you? You’ll face challenges – your own self-obsessed sea creatures and killer coconuts – but each conquest shapes us into a fearless voyager with skin thick enough to lead fulfilling lives.

Say “Mahalo!” for good vibes, ancient mysticism and Alan Tudyk’s simpleton chick sidekick (even though I wanted more adorable piggy scenes)! Just shut of your brain for two hours and follow a young future chieftain’s musical journey as she comes-of-age with magical, musical Disney charm. I mean, if you can’t enjoy Lin-Manuel Miranda tunes, then please see a therapist STAT – or a doctor, actually. You might already be dead.


Moana beats the drum of female empowerment for so many young girls who deserve it now more than ever.

Moana Review

About the author

Matt Donato

A drinking critic with a movie problem. Foodie. Meatballer. Horror Enthusiast.