In an effort to cut through the backlog of movies left to review after everything that’s happened the last couple of years, I’m going back to movies I skipped and giving them each 5 Things. These can be things I loved, things I hated, or anything in between, they’re just 5 thoughts I had about the movie. Today I’m tackling Moana, one of my favorite movies of 2016, and probably my favorite Disney animated film since Tangled. I gave it an A+ in my movie log at the time I saw it, and I probably love it even more today than I did then. It’s gorgeous, has fantastic music, and characters I find immensely relatable and compelling. So without further ado, here are 5 Things I Love about Moana!
“Know Who You Are” is a rare musical climax
Quick, when was the last time an animated Disney musical featured a song at the climax of its story? I’ll wait… Tough to find one, huh? Most stories in the Disney animated canon end with a villain being defeated, usually in a moment of daring, bravery, or sacrifice, but none of them do it with song. In fact, it’s not even particularly common to have the climax of a story sung in any musicals, except for ones that are sung-through. (In fact, musical climaxes are more common in non-musicals.) There’s a standard formula to the songs in Disney movies that was invented and perfected by Alan Menken, and Moana follows that formula very well but it improves on it in this one key area. As the story reaches its zenith, Moana realizes that the lava monster Te Kā is actually Te Fiti, the goddess whose heart Moana has been trying to return. As the ocean parts to allow the two to come together, Moana sings to Te Kā with a shared understanding about finding and knowing one’s place in the world despite what others may what you to be. It’s a beautiful sequence and an emotional ending for the film, and it’s a wonderful way to parallel Moana’s personal journey with Te Fiti’s, but it’s unique in having this moment one of quiet, sung reflection rather than one of action or confrontation.
English takes a back seat in “We Know the Way”
“We Know the Way” might be my favorite song/sequence in Moana, but it could have easily gone a different and disappointing way onscreen. The song, written by Opetaia Foa’i with additional English lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is pretty much perfect, capturing not only the culture of Polynesia but also the spirit of the film and the longing in Moana’s heart. I first heard it performed by Opetaia Foa’i and his group Te Vaka at the 2015 D23 Expo, but I was worried when the English version featuring Miranda’s vocals was featured so heavily in the trailers for the film. I worried it would become an English song with merely background vocals in Samoan and Tokelauan (the languages of the first verse and chorus, respectively) to add some “flavor” to the song. The other option was that it would feature multiple languages but would be used as a montage song like “Logo Te Pate” is later in the film, or one of those songs for setting the stage, like “Tulou Tagaloa” in the film’s beginning. Disney is not alone in pulling from cultures as accents or set dressing for their movies, but they have definitely done it a number of times (The Lion King, Frozen, Pocahontas), and I didn’t want to see it done again with Moana.
So when Moana banged on the drum in the cave full of hidden ships, and I heard the opening notes of “We Know the Way” I was excited that such a great song was paired with a key moment in the film. But when the chief in Moana’s vision started singing in Samoan, I literally gasped. I expected no singing at all, with the song just as a montage. But if there was to be singing, I would have bet it would have been set to the English portion of the song with the Samoan/Tokelauan as just a lead-in. But Moana completely surprised me. Instead we get the chief and his entire people singing along to “We Know the Way” in Samoan/Tokelauan and the English portion with Lin-Manuel Miranda as the montage bit. This sort of thing is almost never seen, and it’s rare to give a character a voice that’s not an English voice. It’s such a small moment, but it allows us to see this vision through Moana’s eyes rather than our own. Moana certainly isn’t really speaking English, that’s just for the audience’s benefit, so why would her ancestors in her vision be speaking English to her? It’s tiny details like that that really set Moana apart.
Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson
It’s hard to overstate how key the voice performances of the two leads are to the success of Moana. Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson were perfectly cast as Moana and Maui. Cravalho has a killer voice, and the filmmakers made an excellent choice to find an actress who could do her own singing, but she brings so much more to Moana than that. I’m so glad that they chose an actual teenager to play the teenaged Moana, as Cravalho brings both the awkwardness and the defiance inherent to those years, along with the yearning for more that is so inherent to her character. And as for Maui, who else could play a demigod but the Rock, who is not only one of the most physically impressive human beings I have ever seen in person, but also incredibly charming. (And he as a decent set of pipes as well!) But what really amazed me was how well the pair played together, considering they recorded all of their dialogue separately as happens with most animated films. Sometimes it can be painfully obvious that the characters aren’t talking to each other when the tone of the acting or the delivery of certain lines feels disconnected, but there’s none of that with Moana and Maui. Credit for that goes not only to the pair of actors but also to the team that cast them and the editors and animators who helped shape their scenes to bring out a chemistry that never existed in the recording booth. Add to all of that the fact that almost the entire cast is of Polynesian heritage and it’s easy to identify the cast as one of the standout aspects of Moana, with Cravalho and Johnson leading the way.
I’m kind of in love with the fact that Alan Tudyk has become the John Ratzenberger of Walt Disney Animation, and I hope he continues to have a part in every Disney animated film for the rest of his life. In addition to his roles in Disney movies Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia, he actually has a long and varied career doing voice work on TV, in films, and in video games. I even remember him making an impression as Sonny in I, Robot way back in the day (a role that made his performance as K-2SO in Rogue One feel like he was coming full circle). I’ve been a fan of Tudyk for a long time, so any chance I get to see or hear him onscreen is a treat. But I can’t imagine he ever thought he’d have to voice a non-speaking, idiot chicken. I hope somebody at Disney went “Oh shit, we forgot about Alan!” and this was the only role that was left for him to play. He does a great job voicing a stupid chicken, but it’s the height of absurdity to have a familiar face/name voicing a chicken. And I love it. (And, of course, the fact that he voices the villager who suggests eating Heihei just makes it that much better.)
Musker and Clements
I really feel like Ron Clements and John Musker have not gotten enough credit for directed Moana. So much attention has been focused either on how enjoyable the characters of Moana and Maui are, the wonderful songs by the hottest name in show business, or the beauty of the animation, that the directors have gotten a little lost in the shuffle. Part of the problem seems to be that there’s a lot of doubt about what animation directors do. People understand what Steven Spielberg does, but in animation there’s no need to yell things like “Lights, camera, action!” on a set. Musker and Clements had directed six movies together for Disney before Moana (The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet, and The Princess and the Frog), but their names aren’t as well-known as some of their collaborators such as Alan Menken. They didn’t write Moana either; that task fell to Jared Bush and a team at Disney. But Musker and Clements are at the very heart of Moana. They pitched the original idea for the film, did much of the early research into the culture and the look of the film, and helped assemble the team that would ultimately make Moana. They’re the ones who gave the film it’s tone and its look, gave Moana her journey, and brought the characters to life. They did it all while adapting to their first computer-animated film. Don’t get me wrong they had a lot of help, including co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams, who helped with the story side of things, but Moana still definitely belongs to Musker and Clements, and the army of animators that brought the film to life. Think of that opening sequence, with baby Moana and the ocean. That’s the sort of thing animation directors are responsible for bringing to the screen, and I just hope we don’t have to wait another seven years to get another film out of this legendary duo.