Walt Disney Animation Studios is having a great year, and as a result, so are Disney fans and animation junkies. The Big D's latest film, Moana, continues to ride the wave of success stirred up by the ferociously hilarious buddy cop comedy, Zootopia. Where Zootopia provided biting and timely commentary on the dangers of both overt and internalized prejudice in our modern society, Moana's message of identity and self-reflection as an agent of positive change is just as important.
Dynamic duo John Musker and Ron Clements, who brought the world films like Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog, return to create Moana, their first CG animated film. Moana, an intuitive 16-year-old with a fascination with the ocean, is destined to be the next chief of the ancient Polynesian island of Montinui. Montinui has fully provided for its inhabitants for centuries until its wellspring of resources begin rapidly depleting. Moana learns that the only way to restore her island is to sail across the sea, find the legendary shapeshifting demigod Maui, and return the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti which Maui stole over a thousand years ago. If that's not a plot of a Disney movie, I don't know what is.
Newcomer Auli'i Cravalho impressively voices the titular character alongside co-star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson who championed the role of the arrogant but insecure Maui. This follows the recent trend in Disney flicks where a guy and girl, originally at odds, grow to have an inseparable platonic relationship over the course of the story. In fact, all the major tropes are present in Moana: a wise and carefree grandparent figure (think Dumbledore or Uncle Iroh), an animal sidekick, and the classic "I Want" song where the hero sings about their deepest desires to the heavens.
And speaking of the music, Moana doesn't have a catchy tune that will stay stuck in your head for days to come. It has many. For those scarred by the constant repetition of "Let it Go" on the radio, children's shrill voices, and yes, even your own mind, rest assured that Moana's soundtrack is loads more listenable. Hamilton: An American Musical creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, wrote Moana's island inspired music with Somoan recording artist Opetaia Foe'i. When you mix in the expertise of Grammy-winning composer Mark Mancina you get the greatest Disney soundtrack since the Lion King. Do yourself a favor and listen to "You're Welcome" featuring a rap break from The Rock. You can thank me later.
The filmmakers went to great lengths to faithfully represent the people and culture of the South Pacific Islands, forming The Oceanic Story Trust comprised of native people and scholars who vetted every aspect of the film for cultural accuracy. I'm no expert on Polynesian culture but even I could see that every scene in the movie was delicately crafted to celebrate the history and traditions of an often exoticized group of people.
Visually, Moana excels in animation, CG rendering, and overall art direction. From the sand to the trees and the sea to the breeze, Montinui and the surrounding islands are a fully developed tropical wonderland that I am aching to revisit. Unfortunately, Moana suffers from the same problem as the island hopping video game The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Because each locale is separated by vast expanses of ocean, the world feels disconnected with no real sense of scale or direction. Without so much as an insert shot of a map, it is impossible to gauge how far Moana and Maui are traveling between land masses which makes the boat scenes feel like hard stops as opposed to vehicles that drive the story forward. Still, it would be a damn shame if Disney didn't return to this living breathing world in a sequel.
Moana is a bold new step forward for Disney the way many people hoped Brave would be for Pixar. It is a heart-warming tale about a young girl whose biggest challenge isn't conquering the perils of a vast and treacherous ocean, but facing the storm of self-doubt and identity within herself. In this way, Moana's fantastical adventure becomes relatable to all. Even though this tune has been sung a thousand times, something about Moana's portrayal of this common human struggle will resonate deeply with those who gaze into the conflicted heroine's eyes.
Although the film is almost two hours long, it never overstays its welcome like some of your Thanksgiving guests. Filled with genuine laughter and heartache, Moana is an instant classic that will be remembered just as fondly as Frozen without the PTSD.