Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Written by Jared Bush
Starring Auli’I Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachael House, Temeura Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, and Alan Tudyk
Runtime: 103 minutes
Disney has been on quite a winning streak lately. I’m not referring to the consistently good-to-great Marvel movies or the expectation-defying Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, either. I’m talking about their animated films. After a significant lull in quality following their resurgence in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, starting somewhere around the wrong-headed The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996 and ending with the very good Bolt in 2008 and the under-appreciated The Princess and the Frog in 2009 (their last traditional, hand-drawn animated film). Since The Princess and the Frog, they’ve refocused on storytelling instead of jokes and have produced some wildly popular films, like Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia, and all of them have been very good (though I’m not a huge fan of Tangled and Frozen, they’re still good movies). Moana, their second animated feature of the year after Zootopia, hits all the right notes, both as a story and because of the songs.
Moana (pronounced mo-ana) is set on an isolated Polynesian island paradise that no one ever leaves (partly because it’s paradise and partly because it’s more or less forbidden to go beyond the reef). Moana (newcomer Auli’I Cravalho) is the daughter and only child of Chief Tui (Temeura Morrison) and will take over as chief herself one day, yet she is drawn to the ocean. Enticed by the stories her Gramma Tala (Rachael House) told her as a child, about the shapeshifting demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stealing the heart of the god of creation and causing a blight to spread out to all islands, and realizing that the stories were real when the ocean chooses her to put things right by giving her the stolen heart, she sets off to find Maui, who is very reluctant to help, and save her island which is now starting to suffer the blight.
Jared Bush, who also co-wrote and co-directed Zootopia earlier this year, gets sole credit for the screenplay here, from a story by Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell and Jordan Kandell. The story itself is really another iteration of The Hero’s Journey, but most films are, when you think about it. what Bush does with the story is really quite good, though. It follows the Disney tradition of female empowerment and being true to oneself, all while creating vivid and unique characters, particularly in Moana and Maui but also in an especially fun villain, Tamatoa (voiced by the wonderful Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Concords and What We Do in the Shadows). He manages to create organic humor from a story that’s really life or death. Through her journey, Moana learns to be herself while embracing the traditions of her people and forging ahead. Maui learns how to look beyond himself and see a bigger picture while also moving beyond trying to be accepted by people who will never do so. The only character in the picture that was unnecessary was HeiHei (‘voiced’ by the great Alan Tudyk, who has been in all of the Disney animated films since Tangled), a cockeyed chicken who is dumber than a sack of hammers. He’s a funny character, following in the Disney tradition of the non-verbal animal sidekick (which appeared like it would be the adorable pig Pua, given the beginning of the film), but he’s kind of useless except for some filler laughs. He’s not helpful, like most of the animal sidekicks, which makes him an innovative character but innovative doesn’t always mean necessary.
Working in tandem with the screenplay are the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’I, and Mark Mancia (who also wrote the score). The songs are really well done and excellently woven into the story and the film, which is something that Tangled and Frozen were not consistent with (many of the songs in both of them seem to come out of nowhere and marginally work with their stories). Standouts include How Far I’ll Go, You’re Welcome and Shiny, but really, they’re all good.
Back in the director’s chairs are veteran Disney directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the duo who directed the great Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, as well as The Great Mouse Detective, and The Princess and the Frog (they can be forgiven for Hercules and Treasure Planet based on their other films). They, along with co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams, bring this world to life with stunning visuals and great character design. Their inclusion of the non-verbal yet still wisecracking animated tattoo on Maui was a great touch. Not only are their visuals top notch, but the vocal performances are too. Clements and Musker were wise to not fill their cast with known actors (with the exception of Dwayne Johnson) and wiser still to get many actual Polynesian people to play Polynesian people.
Making her acting debut, Hawaiian-born Auli’I Cravalho (who celebrated her 16th birthday the day before this film premiered) is simply wonderful in the title role of Moana. She brings a kind of assertive uncertainty to Moana, making her confident and fearful at the same time. She stands up to a demi-god and perseveres through some very daunting challenges. Countering her is Dwayne Johnson, giving an excellent comedic performance as Maui. Not only does he bring humor and pathos to this narcissistic braggart, but humanity as well. Not to mention a great singing voice (though I shouldn’t have been surprised. Dwayne Johnson can do anything and do it well.).
Aided by excellent visuals, a great script, winning songs, and a remarkable cast, Moana is an incredibly entertaining picture, sure to please everyone in the audience. It’s a testament to the ever-evolving creativity at Disney and helps to add one more different face in the Princess line-up, a change that started with Jasmine in Aladdin and has continued through Pocahontas, Mulan and Tiana, showing that you don’t have to be white with a European background to achieve monumental success and stay true to yourself. Moana is a fantastic picture, sure to become a jewel on the already crowded crown of Disney.