Moana movie reviews

MOANA Review: Learning Leadership By Teaching Leadership

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Once the wind takes the sails, all the doubt -- from inside yourself, from those who don’t think you have what it takes, from the natural world -- fades away, even if just for a little while. You’ve already made the leap so there’s not a whole lot that can hold you back, even if you don’t believe you can do it. That’s what happens to the doubting Moana (Auli’I Cravalho) as she sets off for her seafaring adventure in Disney Animation’s latest terrific movie. She has to save her people, her island, her way of life -- and maybe the world.

Photo credit: Moana/Facebook

It’s a tall task for a teen girl who is being groomed to lead her village in a time of ever-dwindling resources. Fishing has become impossible, coconuts are filled with ash because of dying trees, and there is a growing batch of inky black goo spider-webbing its way across the island -- like the real world’s island nations, hers too is under attack by a changing environment. Moana has an itch. She knows the ocean calls her (literally, the ocean is a character) to do something more than what’s expected of her by her stay-at-home chief father (Temuera Morrison, playing a mostly kind and genial man who is protective of his risk-taking daughter because of a traumatic experience of his own on the high seas). The people of their village are scared their crops will dry up and they will be left with nothing. The chief wants to trust that everything will go back to normal and won’t listen to his daughter and eventual successor that they may have to find another way. That other way requires a trip over the horizon into the great unknown, a place filled with demigods, giant villainous crabs, and lava monsters who may or may not represent doom for the entire planet. Moana must navigate that peril while negotiating the tension within herself -- fear and internalized expectation of her own failure versus her need for adventure and a chance to prove herself -- and it results in one of the finest executions of the Disney “finding yourself” formula.

Along the way, Moana meets the demigod responsible for the bad in the world. His name is Maui and, as played by Dwayne Johnson, he’s a brash, prideful lunkhead who is quick with a derisive joke but he’s got a lot to offer to humanity -- and Moana. In fact, he has offered so much to humanity that he cannot understand why they are so ungrateful to him because of his one mistake: stealing (and losing) the heart of an island goddess as a would-be gift to humanity so they could create life. It would have been consistent with Maui’s other gifts to the people (sunlight, fire, pulling up islands from beneath the choppy seas so that they have somewhere to live) that it is beyond him when he is imprisoned for 1,000 years on a solitary island in the middle of nowhere to contemplate (or not) the environmental havoc his heart-stealing journey caused for the humans he is so quick to say must be grateful to him.

Maui’s signature song, “You’re Welcome,” written by Hamilton and In the Heights creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in his long string of work that is somehow both uplifting and satirical at the same time, offers Moana a glimpse into the wrong kind of leadership. It is example after example of all the great things Maui has given to people, but he has grown detached from them, losing sight of his responsibilities. The distance between him and the people is not all that different from what we see in modern political discussions about “elites” who are out of touch with the common people’s desires and needs. Yes, Maui did a lot of great stuff, but you can’t coast. You must grind when you’re the one in charge. That grinding, striving quality is Moana’s calling card quality, and she teaches Maui to be more like her. It won’t solve all of the world’s problems, but it’ll certainly be an improvement, and he can also help fix the most pressing threat, the quick deterioration of the natural world, which requires the stolen heart to be returned to its rightful place -- on an island guarded by the aforementioned lava monster.

The journey to get to that understanding is filled with the kinds of Disney touchstones you would expect, but they are amplified to be something more powerful in Moana than usual. There is a seemingly useless animal sidekick, but instead of merely being cute but extraneous, Heihei the dimwitted chicken is an allegory for how even the lowest people on the societal totem pole can contribute in massive ways. When a humongous crab (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords) who is obsessed with sparkly things shows up to menace Moana and Maui, he gives us the closest thing we’ll ever get to a David Bowie song in a Disney animated feature film. Moana’s movie-defining “How Far We’ll Go,” is a universal call for belief in those around you and it is perhaps a more potent and positive tune than that other Disney megahit of the decade, Frozen’s “Let It Go.”

But that precious film’s most famous song informs Moana’s greatest charm. The title character is at her best when she blocks out the negative energy that surrounds her. She becomes a leader because of her ability to do the unpopular thing that is nevertheless the thing her people need most.

Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, Chris Williams
Writers: Jared Bush, Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell
Starring: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement
Rating: Four stars out of five

Available in theaters now

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