“Moana” is finally here, everybody. The first Disney animated feature since — well, Zootopia earlier this year. But it is the first Disney animated musical since Frozen three years ago. If you have kids, there’s definitely no way you’re escaping this one.
“Moana” is, at heart, a loving tribute to Polynesian culture in the form of an adventure film. It follows a young girl after whom the movie is named: she’s the young daughter of the chief of Motunui Island, and her father eagerly prepares her for the day that she will become leader of the land. Of course, Moana has other ideas: she wants to explore the ocean beyond the bordering reef (and maybe save the world).
Actually, she’s destined to. And that’s the problem. “Moana’s” marvelous soundtrack and lush animation save it from drowning under a formulaic ‘chosen one’ plot.
“Moana” does two primary things beautifully, and its look is one of them. Though I’m personally still not a fan of how Disney’s CG animators have been designing human beings lately (they look like porcelain dolls in a detailed world), “Moana’s” lush island landscapes, impressive visualizations of mythology, and inviting oceans comprise some of the studio’s smoothest animation yet. The film’s settings are cornucopias of pretty views.
Even better is the soundtrack, which is simply amazing. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mastermind behind worldwide phenomenon “Hamilton,” was one of three composers and lyricists who crafted the music of “Moana.”
If you’re familiar with any of Miranda’s work, you already know that his songs are imbued with a remarkable sense of humanity. Not only is Moana’s music rousing (standout songs had my body and spirit trembling), the lyrics expertly embody the film’s themes of drive and self-discovery.
The soundtrack is the kind of music that brings communities together: uplifting and offering something for everyone. There’s even a song featuring Jemaine Clement as a giant greedy crab that sounds like it’s straight out of “Flight of the Conchords.” Spin it in your car and sing along for years to come.
Everything that Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t help write fares far worse. The screenplay trips into every ‘chosen one’ plot cliché imaginable. Massive developments happen like coincidences merely because they were ‘meant to’ spur “Moana” in the right direction; major setbacks are immediately fixed by conveniences and then explained away as destiny; every other character asks Moana variations of “who ARE you?” as if this were a watery world full of Rafikis.
As a result Moana isn’t too notable of a character. She’s spunky and embraces her personal strengths to overcome her self-doubt, but what recent Disney heroine doesn’t fit that exact template? Too often her accomplishments are far less results of her agency and more the natural ends of fate.
Miraculously, there is no romantic subplot of any kind to be found, which is really refreshing for a studio that is learning every year how to better tell stories about women.
Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho’s voice work as Moana is great. Dwayne Johnson continues his years-long goal of conquering the acting game with a performance that bleeds charisma as the demigod Maui. Johnson has an incisive talent for delivering comedy, which helps Moana overcome the fact that most of its humor is aimed squarely at small children.
Depending on your tolerance for tired storytelling, Moana will either be a fun movie adventure or just the next album you buy. Listen to the soundtrack some how though!
★★★½ (3.5 out of 5)