For those of you who have read my review of BFG you know that I rate films based on whether or not you need to consume over-buttered popcorn to survive the journey. I am pleased to report that with Moana you can skip the extra butter.
While the big box office draw is Dwayne Johnson, whom I will get to in a minute, I thought I would give credit where credit is due and begin this review with the star of the film, new comer Auli’i Cravalho. Simply put, Cravalho “rocked” it! (pun intended). First of all, she was able to convey on a deeply personal and relatable level the uncertainty and trepidation that Moana had in knowing she had the responsibility to meet the challenge in front of her. In this case, it was to journey outside the reef of her island in order to save it. Cravalho was outstanding in reminding the audience that each one of us, at one time or another has had to venture outside our own comfort zone. And when we go outside our proverbial reefs, life becomes scary as hell. Self-doubt and lack of confidence bear down on us. The voice in our head tells us we can’t or that we should quit. It gets amplified when, more often than not, we stumble right out of the gate. However, as our mettle is tested, we quickly recognize that life’s challenges are the true opportunities to grow and develop as a person. Yes, it’s cliché, but even in this era of hyper-change, some basic truths are as solid now as they were in the dawn of civilization. Through her timing and attention to tone of voice, Cravalho captures this nuance superbly.
Equally impressive is her ability to transform the apprehensive and uncertain Moana in the early part of the film, to the self-confident and bold leader who emerges along the journey. It would have been difficult to portray the necessary confidence in the manner required for this film, unless she had her own personal experience of initial self-doubt followed by earned self-confidence. I raise this issue because I suspect that as a new-comer, she must have had doubts along her journey as to if she was really qualified to lead a film with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. I even read she wasn’t going to audition because she saw youtube auditions of others who she felt were more qualified. Fortunately for all of us, she didn’t listen to those negative voices. I expect we will be seeing more of her in the future.
The last aspect of why Cravalho was perfect for this part is her Polynesian heritage. While all of us can respect and appreciate the beauty and history that comes from other cultures, it is quite different to have the opportunity to share with the world your own personal history. There is an emotional connection and pride that comes from the chance to be an ambassador to your home community and your ancestors. Throughout the film, I kept smiling as I pictured Cravalho’s family and friends celebrating her telling of their mutual history. Her commitment to sharing her history is powerful stuff.
Now, on to Dwayne Johnson. I start by stating I am a big fan of his, except for his decision long ago to play football for the University of Maimi, but that’s because my allegiance is to Notre Dame. Football aside, this was a role that was beckoning Johnson. Just like Cravalho, the role of Maui was his chance to tell the story of his own Polynesian heritage. It pushed him outside his comfort zone and expanded his range beyond his typical role of action hero. While many actors can get typecast in specific roles, especially action heroes, Moana demonstrated how far Johnson has developed and that we can expect more unexpected roles from him in the future. Incredibly, in this case he had to learn to sing! Singing, at least to me, is perhaps the single most terrifying experience there can be. When I read that he learned to sing for this part my respect for his devotion to this craft went up a few notches.
In the end, Moana is a film perfect for its time. Every day, the world seems to get one step closer to falling off the cliff of insanity. But with Moana we are taken back to our roots through the art of story. In this case, Moana is a modern version of Homer’s Odyssey but in our version Odysseus is a smart, strong a bold young woman who completes the journey. And that my friends is the true magic of Moana.