The mammoth studio that is Disney has yet another hit on its hands with Moana, a CG-animated feature that serves as a bit of a throwback to the musical animated features that helped make Disney a powerhouse and a film that nicely balances the need for diversity in mainstream fare. But more than that, it’s a picture that reminds of the type of power the studio brought with features like Aladdin and The Lion King.
Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho voices our titular protagonist, the only daughter of a chief in Ancient Polynesia. Reluctant to take on the mantle and embrace her role as future leader, Moana’s call to adventure and exploration is answered in more ways than one when her grandmother hands her the mystical heart of the goddess Te Fiti. The ocean, you see, has chosen Moana to take it back to the goddess, who lost it when it was stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). And so, with the words of her grandmother providing the last push of inspiration, Moana heads to the seas, tracks down a cocky, proud, yet charming and ultimately kind-hearted Maui and the two embark on a mission to reverse a curse that has led to a lack of fish and failing crops.
Having directed both The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, directors Ron Clement and John Musker certainly have the right type of experience to bring a Disney animated musical with a female protagonist and an underseen culture – at least in Disney animation – to the screen. Moana kicks off with a confidence and charm that doesn’t let up, holding the audience’s emotions through warm, joyful animation, excellent characterisation and a truly fantastic soundtrack.
The character of Moana stands nicely alongside the best of Disney’s protagonists, and is arguably up there with some of the studio’s strongest heroines. Cravalho brings effortless geniality in every scene and more than convinces in the heroine’s more dramatic turns. As Maui, Johnson is an inspired choice; fusing the demigod’s traits with the wrestler turned Hollywood mogul’s real-life charisma makes for a very fun character.
As one would expect, the animation is fantastic, embracing the Polynesian settings with bright colours and a design that keeps it all looking both fresh and very Disney. Very Disney is exactly what Moana is, from its animated style to its narrative format, from the familiar side characters to the ‘embrace your true destiny’ message. This isn’t a criticism, in fact it’s mostly downright beautiful to see the familiar aspects of Disney’s best outings balanced with new elements, but there are a few niggles to be found with the film’s reliance on their tried-and-tested tropes. Certain plot points, including a run-in with coconut pirates called Kakamora and a somewhat tonally bizarre (despite a catchy song) sequence with a giant crab called Tamatoa, seem inserted to tick off a Disney animation checklist rather than boost the overall narrative. Small slips, but still.
Despite the occasional overdependence on Disney hallmarks, Jared Bush’s (Zootopia) screenplay is very well crafted, carrying a true sense of excitement and a level of heart that will repeatedly catch you off guard. This writer, on more than one occasion, found himself surprised at the lump that had snuck up in his throat. Hold up, is that a tear?
And boosting it all is the excellent music. Hamilton creator/star Lin Manuel-Miranda, Samoan musical artist Opetaia Foa’I and composer Mark Mancina (Disney’s Tarzan, Brother Bear and The Haunted Mansion) have created catchy, heartfelt and often rousing original songs and compositions. The film time and again emits a sense of heart and soul; the perfect balance of visuals and stirring music.
It remains to be seen if Moana locks itself in as one of Disney’s standouts in history, but it certainly has the right ingredients to be remembered my many for quite some time. It’s not pitch-perfect, but it’s pretty close. Moana’s success comes down to a tight balancing act: nods to Disney flourishes, a strong screenplay, great performances and a score/song list to drive it all home. Kids and adults alike are in for an energetic, funny and emotional time.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10