By Andrew Haas
Since the beginning of the decade, Walt Disney Animation Studios has been on a winning streak. From 2010’s Tangled to this year’s Zootopia, Disney is on its most successful streak since the ‘90s Renaissance. 2016 is the first time the studio released two of these films in the same year: Zootopia and the latest, Moana. This is not only a return to the fantasy musical genre that made Frozen a hit, but it’s also the return of directors Ron Clements and John Musker, of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin fame, who are introducing the first Polynesian princess in the company’s line-up. The final result is as great as it ever could be.
Moana, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, is a girl in Ancient Polynesia who is next in line to become the chief of her village. However, hard times hit after the demi-god Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, steals a heart stone that puts a curse on the ocean’s many islands. Now Moana must voyage to find Maui and help him set things right.
At this point, I think it’s a given that Disney’s animation is always going to be top-notch. The designs used to portray this culture and its mythos are a major highlight. Since there’s a great deal of sailing in this film, the animators get really creative with the ocean and the action set pieces that take place on it. When the musical numbers hit, the animation can be really imaginative and features great cinematography and choreography. There’s even a bit of the studio’s classic hand-drawn 2D style with Maui’s animated body tattoos. For the two directors’ first time working with the 3D medium, they knocked it out of the park.
That being said, the film does take awhile to get going towards the beginning. At first, the type of plot feels like the typical Disney set-up, such as the one in The Little Mermaid. However, once Moana sets of on her adventure, the plot really kicks into high gear for an exciting time. There’s plenty of fun action pieces, from a fight with coconut pirates to the retrieval of Maui’s hook from a giant treasure-obsessed crab. While the film still utilizes some of Disney’s tropes, it also enjoys poking fun at a few of them, like the qualifications of being a princess.
The story means nothing without a strong cast of characters though, and the filmmakers certainly deliver on that. Moana makes a great protagonist as she is destined to be the next chief, but also wants to be a voyager at the same time. Newcomer Cravalho brings a lot of life to this character through her vocal performance and singing voice. The same can be said for Johnson as Maui. The demi-god starts as a upbeat jerk who soaks up his fame, but the film goes into a lot of depth with his character as it progresses. The chemistry between these two characters is perfect as they fight and eventually learn from one another.
In typical Disney fantasy tradition, this film has plenty of great music to go around. The songs are done by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, as well as Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. The combined talent of these artists brings us some of the best songs to come out of Disney. Songs like “We Know The Way” show off the Polynesian themes of the story, while “You’re Welcome” and “Shiny” are fun showtunes. But the best one in my opinion is “How Far I’ll Go” which is sung beautifully and powerfully by Cravalho. I guarantee audiences will be coming out humming at least one of these songs. Let’s just hope they don’t end up ruined by exploitation like Frozen’s “Let It Go” was.
Moana may not be better than Zootopia, but it’s still one fun ride that I will want to experience again. The characters are enjoyable, the animation is gorgeous as usual, and the songs are guaranteed to get stuck in your head. The story can be average at times, but the many moments that stand out are fantastic, making it difficult not to like it, at least personally. I highly recommend checking this one out, especially for big time Disney fans.