The Rock sings in a Disney movie. That alone should be incentive enough to go see Moana, but I suppose a more in-depth review is in order.
With all due respect to Disney’s “Golden Age” of their first five features, or the Disney Renaissance era than ruled the 1990s, Disney animation has never been better than it is right now. Whatever their secret recipe has been these past few years, I hope they stick with it for a long while. Bolt and The Princess and the Frog planted the seeds in the late 2000s, and the 2010s have opened a door to such a high quality for Disney Animation that they now rival sister studio Pixar in having the best output of animated films in the western world.
The simple delight of Winnie the Pooh, the intelligence and wit of Zootopia, the charm of Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled, the character-driven super hero saga of Big Hero 6, and the utter magic of Frozen, Disney has been living up to its reputation better now than it ever has before. Moana proudly continues this winning streak, and does it in spades.
The story of Moana begins in the distant past. An island goddess named Te Fiti is the creator of life, and eventually turned into a dormant island so that her creation could flourish on its own. This island contains a jewel known as the “Heart of Te Fiti,” which holds the goddess’ power to create life.
One day, the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the Heart of Te Fiti, and unknowingly unleashed a curse that is slowly draining the life of the Earth. Maui’s actions also bring the attention of various monsters and demons who want the Heart for themselves, the most powerful of which is a giant lava monster called Te Ka, who defeats Maui in a battle that results in both the Heart of Te Fiti and Maui’s magic fishhook (which grants him the ability to shape-shift) being lost to the sea, and Maui goes into exile.
A millennium later, on the island of Motunui, Maui’s story has become all but legend. Motunui’s chieftain is Tui Waialiki, who is a good leader, but overprotective of his daughter Moana (Auli’i Cravalho). Moana is adventurous, and wishes to sail the seas, as opposed to follow the traditions of staying grounded on Motunui that has stayed in place for generations. While Moana’s father forbids his people from sailing for fear of the ocean’s dangers, her grandmother encourages her adventurous nature.
During Moana’s youth, she developed a friendship with the ocean itself, resulting in her being gifted with the Heart of Te Fiti, which Moana’s grandmother held onto until the time was right.
When the curse Maui initiated makes its way to Motunui, the island’s plants begin to die, and the fish are nowhere to be found. Desperate to find a means to save her people, Moana defies her father and follows her grandmother’s encouragement. Moana sails out to find Maui and his magic fishhook, defeat Te Ka, and return the Heart of Te Fiti to its rightful place and undo the growing curse.
Though the opening may seem a tad formulaic, once the adventure gets going it never lets up. Simply put, Moana is an incredibly fun adventure story that’s more action packed than most Disney films. But it also has a lot of heart and emotion to it, due in no small part to its well-developed and endearing main characters.
Moana herself continues in Frozen’s footsteps of making its princess a deep, fleshed-out character (though she herself denies her “princess” status, Maui is quick to point out that she’s the daughter of a ruler, wears a dress, and has an animal sidekick, so she still fits the bill). Her bravery and determination easily win us over, but she’s also given human flaws and fears to make her more relatable as well.
Maui also proves to be a new Disney great, having the same boisterous, larger-than-life personality that made Dwayne Johnson’s “The Rock” one of the most charismatic pro wrestlers in history. But like Moana, Maui is given some deeper concerns and conflicts, ensuring that, despite being a demigod, he still has a very human element to him.
The supporting characters are also memorable, with the best of the lot being Heihei, an impossibly stupid rooster whose clucks are provided by Alan Tudyk, proving once and for all that Disney will find any means to get Alan Tudyk in their films.
Much like recent Disney features are reimagining their princesses, so to have they been rethinking their villains, and Moana is no exception. As opposed to a singular foe that needs to be overcome, Moana and Maui have to face a series of opponents. Along with the aforementioned Te Ka, there are also the Kakamora, coconut-like creatures that double as cutthroat pirates, and Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) a giant crab whose shell is adorned with the countless treasures he’s stolen.
The entire film seems to be constantly introducing new and fun characters, and because it doesn’t have to focus on a singular villain, it has more time to develop Moana and Maui’s characters. Fleshed-out heroes have been one of Disney’s weaknesses in the past, but it seems like their last few features have rectified this by giving audiences truly memorable and relatable lead characters.
In terms of animation, Moana is one of the most beautiful CG animated films ever made. The character designs are some of the best in any Disney film (Maui’s tattoos are as much a character as Maui himself), and the monsters that Moana and Maui encountere showcase a truly inspired visual creativity. The environments are gorgeous to behold, with the ocean itself being absolutely striking (as well as being a character in its own right). There’s not a single moment that doesn’t look breathtaking.
Like the vast majority of great Disney films, Moana is a musical, and I’m happy to say that it includes some of the most memorable and catchy tunes in Disney’s history. Some of its best include How Far I’ll Go, which serves as Moana’s “I want” song, You’re Welcome, Maui’s sure-to-be classic number, and Shiny, Tamatoa’s song that extolls the wonders of his treasure-clad shell. Though the soundtrack doesn’t reach the same heights as Frozen, its pacific island-inspired musical numbers never cease to entertain.
Moana is simply a wonderful film. It’s well-paced story is filled with fun and emotion, made all the better by its great, focused cast of characters, terrific song work and captivating animation, making it one of the most entertaining films in the Disney canon. Moana may be more formulaic than much of Disney’s recent output, but it’s so well made that it still deserves to sit alongside Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast and Frozen.