Disney delivers a triumph of breathtaking animation, memorable music, emotional storytelling, and compelling characters in Moana.
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the young princess of Motunui Island located in Polynesia who falls in love with the ocean and the many secrets it holds. She hopes to set sail beyond the reef. The ocean is equally fascinated with her, as it moves to help her at every turn. However, what is keeping her back from sailing is her father (Temuera Morrison), the chief of the tribe, who warns Moana of the reef’s dangers. However, the island is dying. The fruit rots and the fish are no where to be found. Moana’s grandmother (Rachel House) believes this has to do with Maui (Dwayne Johnson), the legendary demigod who stole something that is throwing the world out of balance. Heeding the call of the ocean, Moana sets sail to find Maui and restore peace.
Moana is a chosen one narrative, and these narratives are easy to do wrong because you do not have to explain why this particular chosen one is so special. But, as we go on, we find that is not the case with Moana. She’s high-spirited, curious, assertive and most importantly, someone you would want to follow. A lot of this is because Cravalho turns in a star-making vocal performance. She truly becomes this character and if this is any indication, she’s got a bright future ahead of her.
In fact, everyone delivers with their vocal performances. Johnson’s Maui is funny, daring and sympathetic, and Johnson delivers some of his best work. House also finds shades to playing “village crazy lady” and, in a truly remarkable scene, brings out so much emotion that could bring a lump in your throat. I know it did for me. Morrison does good work too. Other performers include Nicole Scherzinger as Moana’s mother, whose voice is as sweet as can be and whose character serves as a perfect foil to Morrison’s character. Alan Tudyk voices one of the dumbest characters in Disney history, a chicken named Hei Hei. All the chicken does is cluck, but he certainly leaves an impression.
Directors John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) are on top form here. I will go out on a limb here and say Moana is Disney’s most gorgeous film yet. The ocean’s look and texture transcends it from being a setting into an actual character the story needs. There’s so much vibrancy in the settings, the creatures and the character designs. The tattoos on Maui’s body are fully realized and always in motion. The most exuberant and decadent sequence comes in the first appearance of Jemaine Clement’s gold-plated crab, who delivers the best villain song in Disney canon since Cruella De Vil was compared to a “spider waiting for the kill.”
Three unseen stars of the film are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina (who composed the score). The songs warrant instant and incessant repeat. As Moana sings of her destiny in “How Far I’ll Go,” there’s a true emotional connection to what she is singing. Johnson brings his solo number “You’re Welcome,” a composition of ego, to life with memorable commitment. All the music is catchy and deserves its place alongside the wide range of instant Disney classics like “Part of Your World” and “A Whole New World.”
Disney is at the top of their game with Moana. It subverts our expectations of Disney princesses by giving us a character whose identity is not dependent on a love interest. She makes her own journey, is brave and completely independent. There’s something so many young women can take away from this character. Moana is an exuberant animated treat that will go down in Disney history. | Bill Loellke