Ron Clements and John Musker helm Moana, the 56th entry in the Disney animated feature pantheon (probably) and a vibrant showcase of what the House of Mouse does well. The story is one of those by-committee jobs, but there’s a beating heart within that takes popular filmmaking and classic folklore into account.
Clements and Musker were behind The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s return to traditional animation from 2009, and they certainly know how to carve out a tale. Moana is the result of research trips to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti and a five-year effort to get things right.
The movie tells the tale of the titular character, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho. She is the daughter of Tui (Temuera Morrison), chief of Motunui Island. Tui is a protective father and he wants his daughter to realize that she has everything she needs on the island, but she’s drawn to the ocean. Her grandmother Tala (Rachel House) encourages her wanderlust.
When fish are scarce and the vegetation begins to perish, Moana feels the call of the sea once more. She wants to go beyond the reef. She discovers the history of her ancestors and learns the story of the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). She takes to the waters, meets Maui and changes the course of history for her people.
Moana is a gorgeous film and it brims with exuberance and life. The ocean really seems like a realm of endless possibilities, with islands bursting forth out of fire and greenery. The waves surge with energy and rise with surprising calm, especially when the cobalt depths speak to Moana.
The character design is stunning. Moana should take her rightful place among Disney’s top-tier heroines, with the sleek and full animation of her hair a particular highlight. The voice acting of first-timer Cravalho breathes life into the part and she blends tradition with bold modernity to craft a devil-may-care flair.
Johnson’s Maui is an amusing counterpart and he never strays into dated territory, as some Disney characters do. His tattoos are characters, too, and Eric Goldberg’s animation draws them to spectacular life as they tell tales of legend and heroism.
The music is wonderful, with beautifully diverse songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i. There’s an elegant balance between some of the more amusing sidetracks, like when Johnson carves out “You’re Welcome,” and warm masterworks like “How Far I’ll Go.”
There are moments in Moana when one can really feel Disney hitting its stride, when the music curves together with the magnificent colours and the context of the story and the exquisiteness almost overwhelms. These moments clarify how special this film really is, how careful and caring it can be, how majestic the vision is.
Moana is about many things, like destiny and adventure and a cross-eyed chicken (Alan Tudyk). It’s also about how things feel when the wind blows just right and the water sinks into that perfect sapphire colour that reflects the broadest cosmos, the slightest islands, the shiniest crabs. And how the stars blanket it all, watching over demigods and princesses and villagers alike.
Sometimes Moana feels familiar, like when it relies a little too much on the aforementioned chicken. But the studio knows the terrain and a well-placed joke is never far behind. A song is never far behind either, a song that lifts spirits and sheds crystal-blue light on dark times and speaks to how striking things can be when Disney gets things just right.