Moana seems to come about its story with the same attitude that the agrarian socialists of Motunui embrace day-to-day life aboard their lush Pacific island home: Yeah, sure, fine, it’ll do. The movie introduces itself by way of an opening monologue that hearkens back to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in expediency and, believe it or not, plot specifics. The broad strokes: somebody’s got to get a glowing charm back to a volcanic mountain to set a fiery evil to rest. That somebody, as you may have guessed, is the wide-eyed potentate’s daughter who dreams of adventures beyond the confines of her utopian village.
As you know from Disney movies of yore, this sort of thing makes for perfectly serviceable groundwork for the kind of coming-of-age story/buddy comedy that Moana wants to be. A far more fatal problem than the hollowness of the narrative is the hollowness of the hero for which it sets the stage. We get her deal: Though next in line to reign benevolently over Motunui, Moana’s true lifelong aspirations have been to take to the open sea.
Beyond that, we don’t get much from the would-be adventurer, though you readily and excitedly want for more for her. She is played with chutzpah and light by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, and animated just the same. But she is wanting for the sort of nuance that colored the Disney heroines of recent past. As such, Moana drags through its earliest chapter, first enlivening when the young do-gooder teams up with the other half of her fantastical task force: the braggadocios demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), whose accounts of grandeur are more self-sustained delusion than cultural legend.
It is evident from the moment we meet Maui that Moana is at its strongest when it veers silly. Maui may lay to waste the tenuously tailored 10th century B.C. setting with anachronistic gags—some more successful than others, though only one being particularly agonizing—but his self-celebrating energy works miracles in reviving the film’s life force. Cravalho gets to show off a bit more flavor once set at odds with The Rock, with whom she trades many a wisecrack and effort in trickery.
Among the other playful conceits that Moana keeps up it sleeve: an action set piece that pits the adventuring duo against a band of delightfully menacing pipsqueak pirates—without the least bit of irony would I dub this Walt Disney Animation’s answer to Mad Max: Fury Road—and a mid-film face-off with a cripplingly vain giant crab with a penchant for showmanship and song. Played by Jemaine Clement, the monstrous crustacean quickly asserts himself as the movie’s comic powerhouse. (I should also mention that the movie features a particularly unintelligent chicken who failed to enthrall me.)
On the same token, Moana’s soundtrack finds greater success when opting for laughs over heart. The more emotional through-line theme “How Far I’ll Go” pales in comparison to The Rock’s magnificent “You’re Welcome” (call it a spiritual sequel to Beauty and the Beast’s farcical tour de force “Gaston”) and Clement’s maniacal David Bowie tribute “Shiny.” Interestingly, both songs deviate from not only the feel of the movie at large, but from its visual schematic as well; a hand-drawn-style montage accompanies “You’re Welcome,” whereas “Shiny” treads in bona fide psychedelics.
That two of Moana’s standout scenes seem born of another movie entirely speaks volumes about the film’s overarching identity crisis. Though Moana may justify the broad strokes of its plot with a note of loyalty to Polynesian mythology, it struggles to really weave the story, characters, and musical numbers together in a truly meaningful way. Moana, Maui, and the other characters who escalate to significance over the course of the picture’s run don’t exactly feed a unifying emotional theme, nor do its collected set pieces feel bound to any cohesive creative psychology.
Still, though these errors may keep Moana from being a great movie, they don’t rob these scattered elements of their independent charm. Moana and Maui maintain a back-and-forth worth its share of smiles; tiny swashbucklers remain a sight to behold; Jemaine Clement’s narcissistic shellfish is one of the funnier antagonists an animated movie has put forth in some time. No, these things don’t all blend together well, but if you can follow Moana‘s island society’s lead and just roll with it, you’ll enjoy them one by one.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Michael Arbeiter is the thalassophobic East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.
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