Moana is the perfect tropical escape from Winter Quarter woes, and A&O couldn't have picked a better time to screen this film than this past weekend. The film draws on Polynesian culture and legends to immerse you in its exciting, beautiful world. Even with slight flaws in the movie's storytelling, it was a shock to come out of McCormick Auditorium and realize that, yes, it was still winter.
Disney continues its streak of films featuring strong, independent female protagonists with Moana, but the film goes a step further in that its title character (wonderfully voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) has no love interest in sight. This makes the film a breath of fresh air – and not just tropical ocean air.
The story itself, with four credited directors and eight credited writers, can be a little dramatically uneven and complicated at times. Moana is the daughter of the village chief, Tui (voiced by Temuera Morrison). She is consumed with the desire to be on the ocean, but is forbidden to sail by her overprotective father. She's torn between serving her people and answering the call of the ocean until one day, when her island starts mysteriously dying. Moana's grandmother (voiced by Rachel House) urges her to sail forth and find the legendary demigod Maui (voiced by a hilarious Dwayne Johnson).
Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess who brings fertility to the land, and without her heart, the world begins falling into darkness. Once Moana finds Maui – who first needs to find his magical fishhook which allows him to change shape - and restores the heart of Te Fiti, all will be well. Oh, and the ocean also chose Moana as its champion and helps her out, kind of like an animal sidekick that looks like a blob of animate blue Jell-O. Got all that?
The Disney hero's journey of "we have to find this thing to solve this thing" can feel a little tired, but no one really goes to a Disney movie to experience revolutionary storytelling. We go for the unique characters, the songs, the comedy and, of course, the beautiful animation. Moana has all of this in spades.
Moana herself is reason enough to see this movie. She's one of the most nuanced female protagonists I can remember in a Disney movie. She's confident in her abilities without being arrogant and insecure about her destiny as the ocean's "chosen one" without being helpless. Maui, meanwhile, is more of the comic relief character, arrogant to a fault but with a heart of gold underneath all the swagger. They make a great, mismatched team as they bicker and learn from each other on their journey.
The songs are written by the brilliant team of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and South Pacific band Te Vaka's lead singer Opetaia Foa'i. There are many gems on this soundtrack, from Moana's Oscar-nominated song of empowerment, "How Far I'll Go," to Dwayne Johnson's joking introduction in "You're Welcome," to the epic "We Know the Way," sung by Miranda and Foa'i themselves.
As epic as this journey is, there's also a lot of laughter to be had, for people of all ages. For the younger viewers, there's the world's dumbest rooster, Heihei (voiced by Alan Tudyk), who continually struggles with things like feeding himself and not falling into the ocean. There are also plenty of one-liners exchanged between Moana and Maui. But the funniest part of Moana has to be its many pop culture references, from a David Bowie tribute song called "Shiny" to a surreal reference to Mad Max: Fury Road. That's right. In a Disney movie. Think Mad Max on a boat and add coconuts.
So, despite its occasionally dragging narrative, there is plenty of fun to be had in Moana. The film is a visual wonder; sometimes the water appears so real that you can't believe Disney didn't just superimpose the actual ocean onto the film. Moana herself is a complex character and an important step forward for Disney in terms of female protagonists. And hey, at the end of the day, it's winter in Chicago. Wouldn’t you love to spend two hours on an adventure throughout the warm South Pacific islands?