By James Gisante
Edited by Carl Cottingham
Disney has once again knocked it out of the park, delivering an inspiring and heartwarming tale with its latest animated film, Moana. Continuing the trend of progressivism that has been apparent in the studio’s films of the past five years, Moana isn’t a story about romance, but one of growth and finding the courage to answer the call to be the person you truly are, no matter how much baggage one may carry. Directed by Disney veterans John Musker and Ron Clements, the duo’s familiar touch can be felt throughout the film and one can’t help but find similarities between Moana and the pair’s other notable works, particularly Hercules and The Little Mermaid, albeit with a more modern touch.
Following the titular Moana as she is being groomed to one day be chief, the young girl has a deep love for both her family and her people but can’t escape her overwhelming wanderlust. Despite her father’s overprotectiveness and insistence that no one should ever travel beyond their island’s reef, Moana can’t help but find herself being called to the sea. When the island is plagued with decaying resources, Moana resolves to set out and save her people. Heeding a legend told to her by her grandmother, Moana searches for the legendary, Maui, a demigod who, a thousand years before, stole the ‘Heart of Te Fiti’, an act that set into motion the problems facing Moana’s island. Moana’s quest may be full of peril, but the action is fast paced, fun and full of laughs as she proves determined to return ‘the heart’ back where it belongs and save her island.
Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho stars as the film’s not-princess, owning the role almost immediately as she fills Moana with such heart and passion that it’s impossible to not become invested in her journey. Beyond just an inherent likability, Cravalho is also armed with an incredible voice that further showcases just what a find she was for Disney. Moana’s narcissistic companion Maui is also a perfect foil for the young hero. With such much of the character’s motivations hidden under the surface, it’s easy to get lost in all the bravado had he been played by anyone else and no doubt would have been harder to put up with. However, Maui is thankfully voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who lets his endless charisma guide the character and make him a treasure in every scene he’s in. This is clearly Moana’s story (as it should be), but further exploring the adventures of Maui before his castaway days could be a fun avenue for Disney to one day explore. It’s also important to mention Moana’s other partners: an idiotic chicken named Heihei and the ocean itself. The ocean, in particular, serves as its own character, having chosen Moana as it’s savior. The animation put into bringing life to the waves, whether they be pounding on the boat or carrying Moana to safety, is simply mesmerizing. It is a testament to Disney’s animation team continually pushing boundaries and the results are stunning for it.
There are few words that can describe the musical effort put into the film through the combined work of Opetaia Foa’I, Mark Mancina and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Managing to not only capture the tone of the Pacific Islands that Moana takes place in but also deliver several vastly different feeling songs through performances by Cravalho, Johnson and a devious crab (played by Jermaine Clement), all the musical numbers fit perfectly within the story and I’d be shocked if most don’t make it on to anyone’s essential Disney playlists. If I do have to make one complaint, it’s that we didn’t get another song or two out of Johnson’s Maui as it was evident that the sheer joy he had with the song “You’re Welcome” was quite clear.
Overall, Moana works for many reasons. Combining an impeccable voice cast with a powerhouse collaboration of musicians under the direction of two of Disney’s finest directors, the film was poised to be a smash hit. Thankfully, the end result more than lives up to the task. While it may not reinvent the tried and true Disney formula, its core message of finding the courage to chart your own path is relatable enough that it doesn’t matter. With an undeniably likable cast of characters leading the way throughout a beautiful backdrop of breathtaking visuals, Moana is Disney’s next great film.