Moana movie review: the hero with a thousand faces finally has a female one

MaryAnn’s quick take: A wonderful mythology of demons and demigods. A heroine who embodies the bold spirit of her people. Another sweet, funny, exciting triumph from Disney.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Disney’s animated musicals; desperate for stories about girls
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

There must be more than this provincial life!” So goes the melancholy cry of the Disney princess. But it becomes so much more, something so much bigger in Moana, yet another triumph for the Mouse’s animation arm. Sweet, funny, exciting, and moving, this is a transcendent experience that brings to the screen a pan-Polynesian cultural tradition that has been entirely absent from mainstream entertainment. Here is a wonderful mythology of demons and demigods, and a creation story unlike any we’ve seen before: this is ancient fantasy that feels fresh because so few of us have been exposed to it before (unlike European-flavored fantasies and Judeo-Christian creation myths, which get so much play). But Moana’s story, set thousands of years ago, also has much that is pointed to say to us today.

The melancholy cry of the Disney princess — “There must be more than this provincial life!” — becomes something much bigger in Moana.

The first thing electrifying about Moana is that its heroine isn’t just a girl longing to see, literally, new horizons. Yes, Moana — pronounced, in case you’re wondering, “Mo-ana,” not “Moan-ah” — is driven to find out what lies the beyond the reefs off her beautiful South Pacific island paradise, reefs beyond which her people are forbidden to venture. What makes her special is how she will achieve this: she is chosen by the ocean itself, as a reward for a kind act toward a sea creature, to take on a quest involving a long and dangerous journey that will, hopefully, save her island and her people. (Turns out paradise is threatened, as it usually is.) From Ulysses and Jesus to Luke Skywalker and Neo and that doofus in The Lego Movie, our literature is replete with “Chosen Ones” who are male. The hero with a thousand faces finally, this time, has a female face. A brown female face. A thousand hoorays would not be enough.

Moana's trickster demigod Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson
Maui: a trickster god nicer than Loki, and with cooler tattoos.

There is, in the grand Disney tradition, much soul-searching and lots of “be yourself” encouragement, but we’ve never seen anything like how that takes shape here via Moana (the voice of newcomer Auli’i Cravalho). She wonders why she dreams of doing something that her father, Chief Tui (the voice of Temuera Morrison: Green Lantern, Couples Retreat), insists cannot be attempted. When she cries “What is wrong with me?” I gasped in astonishment: that cuts deeper into the disconnect between what we’re supposed to want and what we actually do want than any Disney cartoon has done before. And then, in a sequence that is even more astonishing, Moana experiences a soaring vision of the past of her people as daring explorers who crossed vast oceans, who were brave and intrepid, not confined by comfort and timidity. There’s nothing wrong with Moana, and she isn’t a misfit: she embodies a bold and restless spirit of her people that has been denied for too long.

It is impossible to overstate how much girls — and women, and boys and men too — need a heroine like Moana.

This is wonderful. A girl. A “mere” girl. The very incarnation of her culture. Amazing.

It is impossible to overstate how much girls — and women, and boys and men too — need a heroine like Moana.

The adventure that Moana embarks upon requires her to find the trickster demigod Maui, who long ago stole the heart of the mother of the earth, which caused some bad things to happen and darkness to spread, etc. The heart needs to be put back, and only Maui can do that with his magic. When she finds him, she discovers an arrogant jerk (with the voice of Dwayne Johnson: San Andreas, Furious 7) with no desire to help humanity, certainly not after how ungrateful we all are for everything he did for us (roped in the sun, set the tides rolling, and so on). She will convince him that it is in the best interests of his reputation — which he is inordinately wrapped up in — to help her.

Moana's cute Kakamora pirates
Kakamora pirates: be not fooled by their cuteness, for they are mighty.

The incomparable Disney way of combining goofiness with profundity reaches hugely entertaining new levels here: Maui’s animated tattoos, which act as his conscience, as angels on his shoulder prodding him in the proper direction, are characters in their own right. In a cave of treasures in a realm of monsters, Moana and Maui meet a spectacularly vain villain who is both a comic distraction and a cautionary tale. That the animation is splendid goes without saying. And the songs, oh the songs! Just as a musical, as a story that evolves through song, this may be the best Disney entry since the heyday of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman in the early 1990s (with Beauty and the Beast as the very best), or at least since The Lion King, thanks to Samoan-New Zealander singer-songwriter Opetaia Foa’i; Mark Mancina (among his many other credits, Lion King); and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Dwayne Johnson gets a hilarious song for Maui: turns out The Rock has a very pleasant singing voice.)

Ultimately, Moana’s quest, the wrong she must put right, is one with a very applicable message for us today: Do not piss off Mother Earth, because she will turn on you… but it’s never too late to try to fix the mess. If Moana becomes an inspiration for youngsters today to become the green warriors of tomorrow — which doesn’t seem very unlikely at all — she may end up embodying the spirit not just of her Polynesian peoples but of all of us. And that would truly be unprecedented.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll measure. If you’re not a spammer or a troll, your comment will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately.
notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Tue, Nov 22, 2016 4:06pm

So happy to read this. Honestly, this movie hasn’t really been on my radar. Now I want to see it very much!

Tue, Nov 22, 2016 5:00pm

I can’t express enough how stoked I am for this movie. A story about a young woman of colour on an adventure of her very own without needing to be rescued by a male love interest could not come at a more appropriate time.

Watch the Trumpkins find some way to justify “boycotting” it.

Matt Clayton
Matt Clayton
Thu, Nov 24, 2016 2:38am

It is a wonderful movie, and your review sums it up PERFECTLY. Full of heart and some toe-tapping musical numbers.

Wed, Nov 30, 2016 4:24pm

This movie is pretty much perfect, and the soundtrack has been lifting me up for days. “We Know the Way”? Chills. “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)”? Chills and TEARS. “Shiny”? Awesome — and so clearly a tribute to Bowie, especially if you listen to Miranda’s demo track. How fantastic it would have been if Bowie had lived to record the song himself; but Jemaine Clement is a highly acceptable substitute.

It’s also really gratifying to see how much serious cultural research Disney invested in the project. Moana is proof that imaginative storytelling isn’t necessarily hobbled, but instead can be enormously enhanced, by a commitment to respectful cultural representation.

Disney seems to want to make live-action versions of all their animated films; I would argue that if they wanted to do that to Moana, they should do it immediately, and cast Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson as the leads. This seems to be the rare case of the voice actors ALSO being perfect for the actual, physical roles.

reply to  Bluejay
Wed, Nov 30, 2016 4:32pm

Also appreciated the fact that [mild spoiler] a crucial, emotional part of Maui’s backstory is, quite literally, his back story. Well done Disney.

reply to  Bluejay
Wed, Nov 30, 2016 4:58pm

Auli’i Cravalho’s performance really is spectacular. I’m hoping that she’s offered so many other film roles she has no time to reprise the part.

This will almost certainly not happen.

Speaking of soundtracks: I happened to see Moana the same weekend I saw Moonlight. MaryAnn’s review doesn’t spend nearly enough time telling us how fantastic Nicholas Britell’s score is.

Sat, Feb 25, 2017 8:49am

Finally saw it. *happy sigh*

It’s gratifying to see not only a female hero, not only a female hero who isn’t white, but a female nonwhite hero who’s built like a normal person and not a Barbie doll.

Fri, Mar 10, 2017 1:37am

Quick trip to Target store, walking by toy section, glance at end shelf with
Moana display. Easily note one Moana figure. Fine. Then note half a
dozen Maui figures next to it. Likewise noted the overall mass of Maui
compared to pretty young girl.

I can’t really say one look
at one shelf is representative, and that they as usual assume that the
boy is more important than the girl – but then…

Considering Maui is not the typical Disney pretty-boy hero that the little girls want to dream about, it’s clear
that they still can’t resist sticking him close so he dwarfs her on promo
pictures and DVD covers.

reply to  althea
Fri, Mar 10, 2017 3:20am

Is it possible that the Moana figures are selling out, and that’s why there’s so much more Maui on the shelves? I remember when it was impossible to find an Elsa doll anywhere.

reply to  Bluejay
Fri, Mar 10, 2017 3:36pm

Good thinking.