Moana (2016): Written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, and Aaron and Jordan Kandell, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, and Alan Tudyk. Running Time: 107 minutes.
Ever since Disney began diving back into the timeless moneypool of the Princess Musical form of animation with Princess and the Frog (which I still hold to be vastly underappreciated), the results have slowly improved with each new film, but so far none of them have achieved real greatness. Yes, Tangled and Frozen are beloved new household favorites that made oodles of cash, and they are quite good, but they both had more than a few character, story, or technical problems holding them back. Moana, to my relief, almost point-for-point improves on every criticism I’ve had of the past few films, and is, in my book, the best of the latest generation of Disney musicals to date.
Our titular character is the daughter of the chief of the small Pacific island of Motunui, preparing to follow in his footsteps and become the first female chieftain in the island’s history (oh, how I wish writing that was less painful). Despite her father’s strict insistence that their island home is all they need, and that the world beyond their reef has nothing to offer, Moana feels pulled to the sea from an early age, and in fact has the ability to communicate with and even manipulate waves to some extent. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another movie where water itself is a character. It moves in ripples with every shade of blue imaginable. It’s easily the best water animation I’ve seen since…..you know, it’s actually even better than Finding Nemo, and that’s one of my all-time favorites.
Her grandmother, who insists that they must eventually sail beyond the island to save the sea from an encroaching darkness set loose inadvertently by the Demigod Maui, does not approve of this strict isolationism, and gently prods her granddaughter to further explore the seafaring past of their people before they settled on the current island home. Soon, the darkness does indeed start to arrive and kill off the fish and coconuts that the islanders require to survive, so Moana finally defies her father and sets out to find Maui and his magical fishhook, so that he can help her return a priceless artifact that holds the key to stopping the darkness spreading across the waves.
Part of what’s plagued the most recent movies in Disney’s musical canon has been inconsistency with the music, with the songs either being mostly forgettable (Princess and the Frog) or often feeling terribly disjointed and out of place alongside the film’s setting or musical score ( see Tangled and Frozen). Thankfully, Moana does not suffer from this problem. While none of the contributions of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i have quite the same movie-defining gravitas of Let It Go, or are as instantly iconic as some of the numbers from the Disney Renaissance of the 90’s, they are solid, catchy, and most importantly, fuse perfectly with Mark Mancina’s score and feel like a cohesive part of the film, as opposed to ditties tossed out of left field because “we have to have a song here, I guess.”
It is also, and I am so glad I can finally write this, an immense relief that there is no romantic subplot in sight. I worried at first that the delightful buddy-comedy dynamics of Moana and Maui would give way to a romance at the very end, but thank God, we never tread (nor swim) there. Not that romances are inherently bad in these sorts of films- Frozen had a fairly clever spin on theirs- but because they are so universally expected in every movie, I don’t think I would recall one that I found unforced if I tried.
More than anything else, Moana benefits from focusing itself on what, in the end, is a pretty small story. For all the talk of saving the ocean and battling lava monsters of darkness, it boils down to just being two different types of people trying to get along on a boat while handling their own insecurities. The film never really tries to do much more than that, and because it does it so well, the result is much more effective than that of many films that try and fail to be “bigger” in some thematic sense (although there is certainly a Globalization vs. Isolationism debate that can be drawn from Moana’s conversations with her father, for those so inclined).
Most of this comes down to great casting in the two lead roles- The Rock brings his established starpower and patented charisma to the table as Maui, and while he certainly gets plenty of the film’s best lines, his counterpart, newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, is a wonderful revelation as Moana. Listening to this immensely talented young woman match a much older superstart point for point was one of the highlights of any movie I saw this year, and I sincerely hope we get to see more of her in the coming years.
This is also only the third of the Disney musical films to have a non-white lead, and while increasing diversity in pop culture has been important for a long time anyway, the fact that this film is coming out (and pulling in a profit) right now, in the wake of a wave of xenophobia and white nationalism breaking across the US and Europe and with the prospect of a Trump Presidency looming before us, makes the very existence of movies like Moana all the more important and precious.
In fact, this importance, and the fact that, some inevitable controversy notwithstanding, the film and its production team mostly did everything right they needed to do right, really does outweigh a lot of the criticisms of the movie as a movie that I could come up with. It does indeed stick to standard Disney formula, right down to the silly side characters and a few reach jokes that fall flat. We know almost immediately what the characters arcs for Moana and Maui will be, making most of the third act wholly predictable. But because we need Moana in all her glory as a pop culture figure now more than ever, no, those issues really don’t matter as much.
Moana and its earlier 2016 counterpart Zootopia are the kinds of film I’ve been waiting for to be able to join the chorus of cinephiles saying that we are on the cusp of another Disney revival. I was skeptical until now, but the more I think about both of these movies the more I dig them, and if they truly are harbingers for a new wave of great Disney animation to come, I will be there to greet it with open arms and childlike glee.