Over the past few years Disney has been releasing hit after hit with no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Coming out of their Renaissance at the turn of the century, Disney hit a lull until the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, kicking off what some refer to as the Disney Revival that has featured films such as Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia.
Moana, directed by Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid and The Princess and the Frog), continues with this revival. It also continues the studio’s recent push for diversity and inclusivity throughout their films, mainly The Princess and the Frog, by depicting a Polynesian culture infused with Magic and folklore. The film follows the titular Moana, voiced by the infectious Auli’i Cravalho, as she searches for Maui, a demi-god with the abilities to help her save her village from destruction.
Unlike previous Disney Princess movies, Moana is unique in that there is no romantic plot or sub-plot – it is a straightforward hero’s journey, as expressed by Clements and Musker in numerous interviews. Moana is a princess, the village chief’s daughter, but does not act the role and in fact argues throughout the movie that she is not a princess, or at least Disney’s traditional version of one; there is some wonderful meta-humor directed at the helpless princess with an animal sidekick model that Disney so often utilizes. She has a great sense of wonder and adventure, but has been confined to her island home all her life due to her father and village law that they cannot sail past the reef surrounding the island. “No one goes past the reef!” her father yells at her at one point. Following a brief series of events regarding the well-being of the island, Moana is forced to disobey her father and seek out Maui, voiced by the ever-charming Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The two must then embark on a journey to save Moana’s island from monsters, demons, and unknown dangers.
But, in true Disney fashion, we cannot forget the music! Moana’s score, co-written by Hamilton’s Lin Manuel-Miranda, evokes a joyful, yet determined, sense of wonder and adventure – this is balanced with traditional, if only occasionally island-stereotypical instrumentation, giving everything a sense of levity. Each song keeps the momentum going, driving the story forward or providing solid exposition, never having a throwaway simply to fill time. The film’s first song, performed by Moana’s father, provides the backdrop for the village’s island life, establishing the culture while discouraging our heroine’s desire to cast off and explore the ocean – everything they need is on the island, why would they leave? Dwayne Johnson’s Maui pulls off some very Hamilton-esque rhymes in the rap-sung “You’re Welcome,” establishing the character as very prideful and attention-seeking. Even “Shiny,” performed by Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement, serves as both a new obstacle for Maui and Moana as well as strengthening their relationship to overcome the trials ahead. Recurring through the film are variations of the theme for “How Far I’ll Go,” acting as Moana’s anthem (Frozen’s “Let It Go"), allowing Moana to focus herself and find the strength the complete her journey, while also providing that spark for her wanderlust and the effect the ocean has on her through the lyric “It calls me.” It also centers as one of the film’s primary musical motifs, having variations appropriate for the scene or circumstances presented. It would not surprise me in the slightest if Lin Manuel-Miranda received award attention for Best Original Score and/or Best Original Song.
An added gem of the movie is its combination of 3D computer animation and traditional hand-drawn animation. While the majority of the movie is very clearly 3D computer animation, the character of Maui is adorned with numerous Polynesian and Oceanic stylized tattoos, all of which were added through traditional hand-drawn animation. This is made all the more impressive as the tattoos are sentient have the ability to move around Maui’s body and interact with him and the rest of the movie world. It was so refreshing to see Disney return to its roots in hand-drawn animation for the first time since The Princess and the Frog.
Overall this was a wonderful movie! Highly reminiscent of the films released during the Disney Renaissance, while still keeping with modern trends of the current Revival. A much more headstrong “princess” learning to be more independent and self-reliant, while still understanding when to ask for help. Moana shines at every level, from Clements and Musker’s writing, to the fantastic performances from Cravalho and Johnson, to the highly memorable score by Lin Manuel-Miranda.
The Critique: A wonderful movie that breaks the mold of Disney's traditional princess. It explores the power and equality of women, without ever subverting it's male characters in the process. It revels in the leads empathy towards the world, while still providing a rich world to explore and get lost in.
The Recommendation: Yes! To everyone!
Rewatchability: Most definitely! I could watch this regularly.
The Verdict: I’m so bad at giving a number rating, I always find it hard. What I will say though, is that it is better than Frozen. More genuine and less formulaic. Take that as you will, but the movie is so very good. (10/10)
JOSEPH: Well it looks like I'll have to see this now!