2016 was a bumper year for animation, with the likes of Kubo and the Two Strings, Zootropolis, and Your Name all being critical and commercial hits for their respective studios. Added to this already wonderful selection is Moana, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker – the team behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.
Drawing on the myths of the Pacific, the prologue tells of the exploits of shapeshifting demigod Maui – how he stole the heart of Te Fiti (a life giving Island Goddess) and in doing so unleashed monsters, and a slow, creeping death to all life in the Ocean. One of the monsters – a fiery lava demon known as Te Ka – defeats Maui, who loses his powers, and the heart of Te Fiti in the process.
A thousand years later, on the paradise island of Motunui, we meet Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) a feisty and independent young woman, destined to be the chief of her people. She longs to explore the ocean, but is forbidden by the elders. When the fish disappear from the reef, and the fruit turns to rot, and the island starts to die, Moana defies her father and ventures beyond the reef on a quest to save her people, and also discover who she is truly meant to be.
There is nothing particularly new about this story, but it is told with boundless enthusiasm, and bounces along to Mark Mancina’s score, and the tremendous original songs by Broadway superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Hamilton star gives Moana some of the best songs to appear in a Disney film since the glory days of Menken and Ashman. There were many debacles on Oscar night, but Moana not winning Best Original Song is most definitely one of them. City of Stars is a catchy little ditty, but it barely registers next to “How Far I’ll Go”, or the hilarious and spectacular Bowie-influenced “Shiny” sung by Jemaine Clement’s giant, blinged-up crab, Tamatoa.
On her journey across the great sea, with just a poor demented chicken named Hei Hei (hilariously clucked by the wonderful Alan Tudyk) for company, Moana finds Maui – the arrogant demigod, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and must convince him to return the heart, and undo the damage he has done. Their bickering relationship provides the heart and comedy of the film. Johnson, as we all know has tremendous comic ability, and even gets to show off his not too shabby vocal range with the up-beat and egotistic “You’re Welcome”.
It seems almost a given in modern cinema that 3D animation is staggeringly detailed and visually stunning. I hope I never become so jaded a viewer that I take these things for granted. Moana is a film so beautiful, in so many ways, and so visually dazzling, I find watching this film to be an incredibly emotional experience.
Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho gives a soaring vocal performance, and imbues Moana with such spirit and strength. She is a modern and capable Disney heroine. When she tells Maui that she is not a princess, he wittily retorts that she wears a dress and has an animal sidekick. But that was old Disney. Jared Bush’s screenplay, following the likes of Brave and Frozen is much more progressive. This is no princess looking for her prince. This is Moana.
Joyous songs, spectacular animation, and an inspiring and diverse central character. This is Disney at the top of their game.