‘Moana’ has a lot of weight on its shoulders. Not only is it the first Disney animated musical since ‘Frozen’ took the whole world by storm back in 2013, but it also comes on the heels of a stellar 2016 for the Mouse House. In fact, Walt Disney Animation Studios, the studio that now brings us ‘Moana’, kicked it off in incredible fashion with ‘Zootopia’, a surprisingly deep yet brilliantly told tale with a profound message at its heart. I think it’s safe to say at this point that the animation studio is in the middle of its second Renaissance, with films of consistent quality the likes of which we haven’t seen since Pixar’s glorious run in the 2000s.
With ‘Moana’ this hot streak shows no signs of cooling. If ‘Frozen’ was made at a time when Disney was unsure whether the old model of animated musicals was growing out-dated, ‘Moana’ overflows with confidence. These guys know what they’re doing now. Not only does ‘Moana’ live up to the expectations set by ‘Frozen’, it surpasses them in nearly every way.
The premise is simple. Moana dreams of sailing beyond her island but is forbidden from doing so by her father. When something terrible begins to befall her island, she realises it is up to her to save her people’s way of life and with the help of the demigod Maui she sets sail to restore peace to the world. While ‘Moana’ never ventures into the complex moral territory of ‘Zootopia’, it contains a powerful message of its own, more in line with previous Disney offerings. In fact, its simple narrative works in its favour. It’s just classic Disney and it sings with the infectious, bright and enjoyable tone that befits the studio’s best.
‘Moana’ is the most beautiful movie of Disney’s catalogue by far, and one of the most beautiful animated films ever made. It may be obvious but the tropical, Polynesian settings really lend themselves to stunning 3D animation. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who heralded Disney’s 90s Renaissance with such iconic films as ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Aladdin’, don’t rest on their laurels with the visual style either and actually include some very inventive, very fun scenes that utilises their strength with hand-drawn animation, resulting in some beautiful imagery. It’s obvious in every gorgeous frame of ‘Moana’ that Clements and Musker are veterans of animation just from their visual style and the animators who worked on the film also deserve a lot of credit.
But where Moana truly washes away the competition is in its songs. Its soundtrack is the best Disney has assembled since the 90s. One number has the potential to rival the supremacy of ‘Let it Go’, and ought to be destined to be its successor. At the same time, unlike in ‘Frozen’ there isn’t one song that sticks out uncomfortably as the ugly stepchild of the bunch. Each one is different and yet each one is sensational. I won’t spoil it but there is one in particular that left me with the biggest grin on my face in the whole movie and left me humming its tune well after I’d left the theatre. Picking a favourite song is almost impossible, as all of them work in different ways and that is a huge credit to the songwriters, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i. If it weren’t for them, ‘Moana’ would not be anywhere near as fun and fantastic as it is.
While the songwriters deserve every accolade they get from ‘Moana’, the performers are equally as important since they’re the ones who have to stick the landing. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho not only does great work as the voice of Moana but she really can sing. It’s hard to believe it’s her first voice-acting role. As for Dwayne Johnson as Maui, his natural charisma melds into his character and the best dialogue is found in the fleshing out of his relationship with Moana. Thanks in no small part to Johnson’s delivery, Maui has some of the funniest lines too even if the true comic relief character is Moana’s pet rooster, Heihei, who earned many laugh out loud moments from the audience.
If I have one criticism of ‘Moana’, it’s that it is just too short. Not because it needed more time to develop its story. Not because it felt rushed. Only because I was enjoying the ride so much, I wasn’t ready for it to end. This was the most fun experience I’ve had in a theatre all year and I can’t wait to watch ‘Moana’ again and again and again for years to come. Another classic has been born.