November 23, 2016
As many Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving this week, they’ll dust off family recipes that have been passed down for generations. When the sweet potato casserole and pumpkin pies are served up, they may have been tweaked a bit to meet the current generation’s liking, but they will still be identifiable as the comfort foods the family has loved for years.
In that same way, Disney’s Moana is the perfect Thanksgiving movie. It’s full of ingredients long-time Disney lovers will recognize, but the recipe has been fine tuned to meet a new crop of fans right where they are.
Moana is the daughter of a Polynesian chief, growing up in a pre-technological society where the people of her tribe depend on natural resources to give them all they need. She will eventually take over as tribe chief, but has conflicted feelings about how she might do that while staying true to herself. The time comes when there’s a shortage of fish in the lagoon around the island, disease spreads through the island’s coconut trees, and the tribe wonders how they will survive. Moana’s grandmother, the self-described “village crazy lady,” believes these problems are the trickle down result of the great demi-god Maui stealing the Heart of Te Fiti centuries before. She believes a chosen one will travel across the ocean to meet Maui and take him to return the Heart of Te Fiti, putting nature back in proper balance. Tribe tradition, however (and Moana’s father in particular), dictates that no one goes beyond the barrier reef for any reason.
You can guess what happens next.
Moana, driven by her own sense of adventure and the guidance of her grandmother, sets out to save not only her own tribe, but all of the natural world.
There are ingredients in Moana that make you feel warm and fuzzy, like you want to take a nap on the couch with a happy, full belly. From the opening notes, the soundtrack carries you away to a world steeped in legend and mystery. The songs are sweeping enough to tap into real emotion and catchy enough that I walked out of the theater singing bits of lyrics. The breath-taking animation reaches new levels of realism (look at Maui’s hair! look at the ocean!) and blends modern CGI with traditional hand-drawing in innovative ways. There are adorable quirky animal sidekicks and laugh-out-loud funny slapstick gags.
Knowing they needed to present the people of Polynesia authentically, directors Ron Clements and John Musker formed the Oceanic Story Trust, made up of modern Polynesian people from all walks of life. It’s incredible to think that a film as genuinely entertaining as Moana also serves as a history and anthropology lesson, but it’s precisely those ingredients that stick with you long after you’ve finished the main course. The delicate harmony the film achieves between its human, divine, and natural characters is itself a nod to the Polynesian culture, and it invites the viewer to engage with the wisdom Polynesians have gleaned from generations of surviving alongside the often unpredictable natural and spiritual world around them. Moana’s story is full of exciting adventure that has nothing to do with romance, and self-discovery that’s inspiring no matter your age.
Moana’s message is that we each have a voice inside us that tells us who we really are. If we suppress that voice, we end up with confusion and darkness but if we let it guide us, it leads to creation and restoration. The film delivers this message in a can’t-miss-it direct way, yet still manages to present lessons of stunning beauty and emotional depth at every turn.
By serving up a menu of crowd-pleasing fixings spiced up by modern flavors, Moana is a masterpiece that should please even the pickiest members of your family this Thanksgiving.
NOTE: Moana is appropriate for kids of all ages (including the 37-year-old ones like myself!), with just a bit of peril that’s resolved beautifully.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 stars