Ever since the release of Tangled in 2010, Walt Disney Animation Studios has had a string of 3D-animated winners that almost rival the Disney Renaissance of the 90’s in terms of consistency and quality. Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia were all critically acclaimed smash hits, making Moana very highly anticipated in the months leading up to its release. Not only was it the newest Disney film, something that would gather a degree of excitement no matter when it came out, it also seemed to have an all-star roster of creative talent: directors Ron Clements and John Musker, Disney veterans famous for The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, were taking the creative reins. Writers like What We Do In The Shadows‘ Taika Waititi and Zootopia‘s Jared Bush took cracks at the screenplay. Behind the music was a trio of incredible musicians: Tarzan composer Mark Mancina, Opetaia Foa’i of South Pacific Fusion group Te Vaka, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, coming fresh off his incredible success with the Broadway musical Hamilton. And bringing the star power was none one other than our generation’s Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. There was no possible way that this could go wrong.
Now, judging from the way that first paragraph was structured, this is where one would expect me to say something about it being a letdown. But I’m happy to say that Moana is absolutely excellent, a joyful and downright inspiring film that gets top marks all the way around.
Moana focuses on… well, Moana (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of the chief of the island Motunui, an island that puts emphasis on avoiding explanation, which the freespirited Moana takes umbrage with. But when she discovers that the Ocean has chosen her to return the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti to its proper place, she leaves on a journey, coming across the demigod Maui (The “Dwayne Johnson” Rock) and a series of terrible beasties upon the way.
Moana succeeds on a number of merits, but where it impresses the most is easily with the chemistry between Cravalho and Rock “The Johnson” Dwayne. Cravalho was a hell of a find, selling Moana’s feistiness and insecurity perfectly, which makes for a great contrast with Maui’s boastfulness. For the record, Maui may very well be Johnson’s best character. He’s excelled at playing anti-tough guys in the past (Southland Tales and Pain & Gain being notable examples), but Maui feels like the culmination of a lot of what he’s been doing with that character type over the years (even if a late-film development puts a bit of a wet blanket on his arc).
The film’s supporting cast, mainly made up of actors from the South Pacific, is also excellent. Temuera Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger are both great as Moana’s parents, Rachel House steals scene like nobody’s business in the role of Moana’s grandmother, and Disney regular Alan Tudyk is a lot of fun as Heihei, the derpy little sidekick chicken.
The music is wonderful, as expected. Foa’i and his army of colleagues bring in a number of wonderfully atmospheric songs that accompany their scenes beautifully. The Miranda-penned numbers show the maestro at the top of his game, with “Where You Are” (featuring Hamilton‘s Christopher Jackson as the singing voice of Moana’s father), “Shiny” (sung by a Jemaine Clement-voiced crab monster with the appropriate amount of glam influence), and “I Am Moana” – featuring the moment that, in a just world, would propel Cravalho into the stratosphere – being the highlights. And Mancina’s score is the glue that brings it all together, fitting both Foa’i and Miranda’s styles perfectly.
I understand that this is not the best possible review I could have written for this movie (hell, I just realized that I haven’t brought up the scene where Moana and Maui fight coconut pirates in an homage to Mad Mad: Fury Road – Mancina even references Junkie XL’s score!). But, to be truthful, it’s a little hard writing about why Disney movies are great at this point. They’ve perfected a winning formula that other studios spend their entire existence trying and failing to find, and there’s only so many times one can write “this was great!” about a movie.
But the point stands: Moana is the Disney formula firing on all cylinders, and it’s once again given us an incredibly satisfying film. It’s a definite recommendation.