Moana uses impressive visuals and a dynamic heroine to build a delightful new addition to the Disney Animation cannon.
Everything old is new again in the Wonderful World of Disney. With Disney’s efforts to revive and recreate it’s beloved animated cannon, including Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, to Pete’s Dragon, and next year’s eagerly awaited Beauty and the Beast, the House of Mouse has found recent success playing to their strengths. Similarly, the latest contribution from their animation studios, Moana in many ways seems a clearer descendent of the Disney’s traditional animated formula than recent releases Zootopia or Big Hero 6. But while it may not boast the narrative boldness of those films, in its title character and stunning visuals, Moana brings about an exciting evolution for the studio while honoring the storied Disney legacy.
The film focuses on Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of a Hawaiian chief who sets out beyond the watchful eye of her father to end the “darkness” that threatens her village. In doing so, she finds herself paired with the showboating demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) as she tries to return a magical gem that he stole long ago. Together they navigate the wild seas, facing off with a dazzling assortment of monsters after the gem as Moana tries to save her loved ones.
As mentioned earlier, the film’s structure largely plays within traditional Disney territory (at one point in the film Maui even addresses Moana’s identity as a “princess” because she’s in a dress and has animal sidekick). However, the film gives her much richer shading than past heroines, jettisoning love interests and focusing on the pull between her love for her tribe and the pull of the sea. The newcomer Cravalho’s vocal performance ably captures both the character’s boldness and youthful uncertainty. The film also distinguishes itself through truly breathtaking visual work under the direction of Disney stalwarts John Musker and Ron Clements. From the representation of the Pacific Ocean (often anthropomorphized to assist Moana), to several sequences utilizing traditional Polynesian art, the film paints a sumptuous portrait of the region without somehow making it feel false. The film’s action sequences are also largely original and exciting, including a memorable face off with a greedy crab-monster voiced by Jemaine Clement.
Even the film’s more traditional elements work well including Johnson’s work as Maui, whose irreverent supporting turn calls to mind Robin William’s legendary work in Aladdin (also directed by Musker and Clements). The frequent action star also holds his own vocally in his solo number, “You’re Welcome”, the film’s answer to past Disney showstoppers “Be Our Guest” and “Friend Like Me”. The other contributions from composers Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina are all universally strong with the sweeping “We Know the Way” and the Cravalho showcasing “How Far I’ll Go” sure to end up being played on repeat in family minivans soon. Ultimately while the film may not revolutionize the traditional “Disney hero’s journey” structure, it has given us a worthy, confident new vessel to inspire the next generation while also managing to astound them visually.
The film hits theaters on November 23.