It’s pretty hard to dispute that Disney has been absolutely killing it with their animated films ever since Pixar’s John Lasseter took over the entirety of Disney’s animation department. Both their action-oriented outings (Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, Zootopia) and their princess films (The Princess And The Frog, Tangled, Frozen) have been massive successes, restoring Disney’s reputation to the top of family entertainment, and it’s an absolute pleasure to report that Moana is true to form, continuing the Disney Renaissance with a story that is as charming as it is timeless.
On an island in a mystical representation of Polynesia, Moana is the daughter of the island’s chieftan and is raised to one day lead their people. However, Moana has a desperate desire to venture beyond the island, despite her father’s wishes. When the island begins to fall victim to a corrupting influence that is destroying crops and killing fish, Moana leaves the island to restore a magic stone to the island where the corruption is emanating from. In order to accomplish this, she has to seek the assistance of Maui, the demigod responsible for removing the stone in the first place.
The film perhaps spends a little too much of the first act establishing Moana’s home island, considering that after her departure we spend almost none of the remaining film there, but it does do a good job of establishing Moana as a character who desperately cares about the well-being of her people. And once Moana does leave the island, the adventure is a delightful and fun one. Naval set pieces—one of which I lovingly refer to as Mad Moana: Fury Ocean—play into Moana’s development as an oceanic explorer. She starts out bumbling her way through troubling predicaments, but ultimately conquers her new skillset by working in cooperation with the ocean—which is actually personified as an expressive wave, because Disney.
But the ocean is not the only onscreen presence to be infused with personality. Newcomer Auli’I Cravalho infuses Moana with the kind of expressive personality that feels the most genuinely teenager of the entire stable of Disney’s female protagonists. (As Moana is quick to remind everyone, she is not a princess, but the daughter of the chieftain. Huge difference.) She is awkward and goofy, but also determined and brave and prone to frustration that causes her to devolve into non-verbal exasperation. Equally engaging, though, is Dwayne Johnson as Maui, who, I kid you not, will be to the current generation of kids what Robin Williams’s Genie was to kids in the ’90s. Johnson gives Maui this kind of bouncing, unerring confidence that is immediately hilarious and charming, but eventually gives way to a surprisingly fragile ego as we and Moana learn more about his background and insecurities. Kids pick up on that kind of complex characterization, and it’s sure to make him a fan favorite… well, that and his ability to transform into any kind of animal with the assistance of his giant magic fishhook.
The animation itself is gorgeous, as Disney has really outdone itself both in the realms of conventional 3D modelling and in throwing back to traditional hand-drawn 2D pieces. Accompanying Maui is a silent tattoo companion who moves across his skin like ink on a page, which is seamlessly integrated into Maui’s movement as a nod to the abilities of Disney’s animation team beyond 3D. There is even an extended musical number that integrates 2D objects into its visual space, and I swear that later in the film one of the creatures they encounter is briefly animated in stop motion. But even without these experimental hybrid animations that all look gorgeous in their own right, the scenery of the Polynesian ocean is stimulatingly varied, from the tropical islands, to enemy ships, to the vast ocean, to a venture into the luminescent realm of monsters.
But in addition to being visually engaging, this film has what is probably the best overall soundtrack of Disney animated musicals in this century. (“Let It Go,” eat your heart out.) It’s really no wonder, considering that Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda was a contributing songwriter. Moana’s main theme is a constant refrain that tracks with Moana’s quest and emotional growth, but there are also individual songs like Maui’s introductory bit, titled “You’re Welcome,” which is this film’s version of Aladdin’s “Friend Like Me.” My personal favorite, though, has to be a song by a supporting character voiced by Jemaine Clement, which is simultaneously over-the-top operatic while being the most Clement-y song ever recorded outside of Flight Of The Conchords.
As you’ve probably deduced, Moana is a great movie, and if it weren’t for other strong contenders like Zootopia and Kubo And The Two Strings I would call this a shoe-in for the year’s animated feature awards. This is going to be a hit with just about everyone who sees it, and why shouldn’t it? It has that uniquely Disney style of polish and personality that has served their animation well over the past decade, and they don’t seem to be ending their Renaissance any time soon.