Disney Animation has had one critical success after another since they’re in the middle of a new creative renaissance. Fully embracing CG animation, Disney has produced hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and most importantly, Frozen. Critics, myself included, heaped praise on that film for its unconventional princess story. We were more willing to forgive its flaws since it was the first time Disney tried to truly shake up its formulas.
Little did I know, Frozen and Tangled were only test runs. Disney Animation has been slowly building their talents as they got more of a grip on CG animated storytelling. Fitting in right along with Disney’s Golden Age films, Moana is a stunning blend of art, musicality, and emotion.
Directors: John Musker and Ron Clements
Release Date: November 23, 2016
Moana follows the titular Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), a teenager who’s always dreamed of traveling the seas beyond her island village, but is next in line for village chieftain and must stay home. When darkness begins rotting away her home, brought on when the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) steals the heart of the ancient goddess Te Fiti, Moana must journey across the sea, find Maui and ask him for help, and return the Heart of Te Fiti from where it came. From its core, Moana is much different from Disney’s other princess films. Choosing instead to follow Moana on a hero’s journey, rather than a quest for love, the film allows for individual character development thanks to its simplicity. While this simplicity may mirror Disney’s previous films a bit too much, it is honestly what makes Moana work as well as it does.
Directors Musker and Clements have experience creating lasting Disney legacies with the two of them directing hits like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Great Mouse Detective. Basically, these two are responsible for a good deal of your favorite Disney moments and it’s the same with Moana. The film may share too many structural similarities with previous films because of their choices, but it’s also sure to make up for that simplicity with a complex emotional through line and culture. It’s what previous Disney Princess films had lacked, and it’s what Frozen experimented with. With a simplified tale, the film allows the characters to add layers of depth. Instead of growing as a character in relation to another person, i.e when Ariel changes herself for Prince Eric, for example, Moana’s tale is all about self-improvement. It’s not complicated with extraneous plot like a third act twist villain or jokes from a cartoon sidekick, Moana instead sticks to its heart with its two central characters and builds everything around them.
Being a character first type of fairy tale, Moana trusts in its two stars to make it work. Thankfully, Dwayne Johnson and the awesomely talented newcomer, Auli’i Cravalho more than hold their own. Johnson as Maui is energetic and as charming as he ever is, but, coupled with Maui’s slightly mischievous character design, now has a slight edge missing from some of Johnson’s work. His song, “You’re Welcome” is also fantastic. His single is definitely a standout with a blend of humor and musicality. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully express how impressed I am by the young Auli’i Cravalho. You would never be able to tell, but as her first major starring role, Cravalho is an absolute delight. Once again marrying character design and performance, Cravalho makes Moana a believable kid. Moana is astonishingly the first Disney Princess to act like an actual young girl. She’s awkward sometimes, but has an endearing moxie that characterized classic princesses like Mulan, Ariel, and Tiana. But unlike the other Princesses, Moana is allowed to have non-romantic flaws.
You’re probably a bit worried since I keep comparing Moana to previous films, but it’s entirely intentional. Musker and Clements intended to recapture the spirit of the 2D films. Every part of its production fully embraces nostalgia, while making sure to change enough to keep the film from repeating the past too much. Thanks to the phenomenal soundtrack from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina, every scene has just a bit more punch. The opening, for example, is kind of incredible. As the film introduces its setting and unique culture (as the Oceanic island culture is far more three dimensional than cultures seen in films past), its punctuated by an incredible chant-like song mirroring The Lion King‘s now prolific opening. While I’m not sure if its lead single’s, “How Far I’ll Go,” contemporary style will outlast the Broadway appeal of its predecessor, it’s still heart-opening. Jemaine Clement’s surprise song performance is pretty great too, as it plays to his creepy wheelhouse. Also, the most beautiful song and performance overall is the ancestor song. I don’t want to spoil it, but just trust that it’s fantastic.
But none of this character work or music would succeed without Moana‘s unbelievable visuals. Moana has Disney’s most exemplary animation to date with its luscious landscape and gorgeous ocean animations. The setting itself is a main character, and somehow feels fantasical yet attainable. It’s an island paradise capturing the mythical nature of its fairy tale, but also looks grounded enough to exist in our world. There’s no skirting the Pacific Islander culture here, unlike the other Princess’ films dilution of ethnicity. The character body design is diverse, with Moana herself looking less plastic and moving more fluidly than humans seen in Tangled or Frozen. Thanks to its full embrace of what makes it different, the story’s complex emotion and culture seem simplistic. See? Full circle. It’s simplicity by design. Blending its depth so well and sneaking in character development through song, I didn’t realize how much I had experienced until I started writing this review.
The only real problem I had with Moana overall was how some of its contemporary jokes and song arrangements (There’s a Twitter reference and other meta jokes) betray the timeless quality of its setting, but honestly it’s not that big of a deal. Moana is definitely one of the better theatrical experiences of 2016, and in a year full of strife, it’s what we need right now.
Its nostalgic quality may turn some off of Moana, but the film is still incredibly fresh despite these parallels to the past. It’s a Disney Princess film taking the successes of the past, fixes their problems, and injects a breath of life into Disney they haven’t had for quite some time. Moana is for the child in you, your children, and even their children.
And who knows? Moana may just go down as a “classic” years down the line.