Moana is a difficult movie for me to review. The music is amazing. The animation is stunning. I am beyond in love with this film. But, and I hate to say this, at times, I was also kind of bored while watching it.
Really, I think my feelings on Moana comes down to one question: are people singing? If they are, then I think is one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, engaging, wonderful movies. But if people aren’t singing… ehhh.
It’s hard to talk about the visuals and music of Moana with actual words, rather than just vague sounds of amazement. This movie is gorgeous. The music is catchy and emotional and clever, and the combination meant that I spent the movie’s opening half an hour absolutely entranced. I spent the last half an hour similarly amazed. But I got fidgety at some points in the middle, where it seemed to be more jokes than plot. I felt as though the movie should have been condensed a little bit more. The coconut creature battle and a lot of the sailing seemed to slow down the pace, especially as the “Moana is helped by the ocean” gimmick meant that it often didn’t really feel like she was doing anything toward her mission herself until nearer the end.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t like Moana’s character, but I found that her moments of quiet determination and bravery were some of her best. People have commented on how all the digital Disney princesses have the same face, but I actually felt like Moana was a personality repeat as well. Moana as a character has lots of unique strengths. She’s physically strong, she’s brave, and she’s ingenious, but she’s also the quippy, sassy, oh-so-modern extravert that we also saw in Rapunzel and Anna, and sometimes that modern element feels a little out of place. More than that, it feels repetitive to have just one kind of “strong Disney protagonist” that’ll have critics going “look how feminist she is, she quips at Maui!” Can we have strength in a different personality type?
That said, I loved the character of Moana behind the quips, and the theme of identity that wove through her story. I loved the complexity of her motivations, and this idea that her problem isn’t being an outsider, but trying to fit all the different parts of her and her different hopes and desires together. She doesn’t just want vague adventures. She wants to help her people. She loves her island. But she also wants to see what’s out in the world, and she eventually leaves when the two intertwine — when she needs to follow her heart to save her island and her people. She’s a very active heroine, choosing her own story, which goes against the “swept along by circumstances” arc that characterises the stories of many female protagonists.
Once we get to discussing Te Fiti and Te Ka, I’m back to lacking words for how much I loved it. How much I loved her animation, how much I loved her story. And this is also where Moana’s quiet bravery came into its own. She obviously has great ingenuity with getting out of tight spots, but the key moment for me was when everything fell apart, and she found the courage to return the heart alone. That was the moment, for me, when Moana finally felt fully in control of her story and her quest to save restore Te Fiti’s heart. And although Moana is physically strong and able, her key trait here was her steadfast bravery, facing Te Ka, feeling empathy for her, and asking the ocean to clear a path so she could restore the heart. Knowing that she could face death, but knowing it’s the right thing to do, and doing it anyway.
And the music in the last third of the movie. The music. I am Moana. Know Who You Are. These songs are so beautiful that I get teary-eyed just listening to the soundtrack. The journey to reach them didn’t always appeal to me, but once that stingray spirit appeared in the water, I was in love again until the end. The movie really comes together when it uses music, rather than humor, to bring out its story and its themes.
So Moana isn’t set to become my favorite Disney movie. But it is, by far, my favorite Disney soundtrack and the most beautiful-looking Disney movie since Pocahontas, which it blows out of the water (no pun intended) with its gorgeousness. And now I’m doing nothing but listening to the soundtrack on repeat, I’m absolutely in love.