In the past four years, Disney Animation has been making leaps and bounds, both in quality and daring. Playing with form and strengthened by strong moral conviction, their last three films - 'Frozen' (2013), 'Big Hero 6' (2014) and 'Zootopia' (2016) - have pushed the company back from the brink of irrelevance, helped by a healthy dose of new voices and talent. With their latest film ‘Moana’, they’ve returned to the old guard with John Musker and Ron Clements at the helm, two who were at the forefront of the renaissance of in the 90s with ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Aladdin’. As a result, we have a new animated classic that beautifully combines tradition and modern daring into a piece of thrilling, moving entertainment.
Moana (newcomer Auli'i Cravalho) is the daughter of the chief of an island in Ancient Polynesia. Destined to take over as leader herself, she tries to find happiness on her isolated island home, all the while feeling the pull of the sea and its enormous possibilities. When a darkness threatens to swallow the whole South Pacific, she defies her family's wishes and sets out on a quest to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and convince him to return the heart which he stole from an ancient goddess, the key to turning back the tide of destruction.
‘Moana’ is easily the biggest film in terms of scale that Disney has attempted in over a decade, a sweeping epic that travels the scope of the South Pacific both in terms of geography and culture. This is Musker and Clements’ first step into computer animation, and they still manage to craft something as lush, colourful and abstract as they did in hand-drawn animation. This is a visually breathtaking film, a rich sensory experience that throttles from one moment to the next with their trademark sense of rhythm and humour. It’s also a tremendous culture for Disney to take on, one that they do with respect and enthusiasm. There’s a celebration of Polynesian ideas and culture, from the visual and narrative motifs to the sound of the film itself.
There are a few elements that make ‘Moana’ truly distinct though, and most of them have to do with its hero. Moana is one of the most driven and inventive protagonists they’ve ever had, a young woman full of integrity and conviction willing to push herself past what she thinks she is capable of. Her hero journey is entirely focused on her growth and self-realisation, and while Maui might be the muscle of the team, she is never the damsel in distress. The film also doesn’t weigh her down with an unnecessary love story which would have distracted from her narrative arc as a young woman coming into her own. She is pulled between the person she wants to be and the person she is expected to become, and how she deals with the weight of that conflict is consistent and moving. Disney has made a conceited effort to offer young women in the audience stronger role models in their last few films, and Moana stands proud next to Elsa, Ana and Judy Hopps. She’s the anti-princess Disney Princess, and shows the company is determined to evolve what that iconic character type means in this new century. She also has possibly the greatest (and funniest) animal sidekick Disney have ever created, a ridiculous chicken called Hai-Hai that seems to survive the oceanic voyage despite being magnificently dumb.
She’s the anti-princess Disney Princess, and shows the company is determined to evolve what that iconic character type means in this new century.
‘Moana’ also returns us to the form of the Disney musical, and as they did with ‘Frozen’ to enormous success (and as they did to start the 90s renaissance), they’ve turned to Broadway for inspiration, this time with ‘Hamilton’ creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. His songs for the film are absolutely terrific, injecting his trademark energy, wit and heart into the DNA of Moana’s story with as significant an effect as Howard Ashman and Alan Menken did in the early 90s. Like so much of the film, it combines a sense of tradition with a modern twist, a sense that the iconic Disney musical has taken another evolutionary step. That said, the contribution from Samoan songwriter Opetaia Foa'i are just as powerful and significant, ensuring that the languages and sounds of the South Pacific are present and authentic within the film. Both Miranda and Foa'i compose a number of songs together, and they create a real sense of magic together.
The voice cast of ‘Moana’ is much smaller than most Disney films, mostly because the focus is so firmly on Moana and Maui. Auli'i Cravalho has exactly the right amount of innocence and maturity to bring Moana to life, capturing her drive and determination. Her vocal performance is alive and electric. The great surprise though is how terrific Dwayne Johnson is as Maui - he’s always been an unexpectedly charismatic performer, but he gives it here in spades, making Maui a charmingly frustrating egotist who finds his own way to grow up in the face of Moana. It also turns out that Johnson can not only sing, but tackle Miranda’s serpentine lyrics with relish.
Whatever shift has happened at Disney seems to have stuck, and as a result ‘Moana’ is another animated classic, their fourth in a row. It’s a huge film in scale and emotion, endlessly entertaining and often ridiculously funny, filled with terrific characters and music so good you will never get it out of your head. It asks a lot more of younger audiences than they might expect, but so did the great films of Disney’s past. The rewards for that work are so rich that it’s totally worth it. For this life-long Disney fanatic, ‘Moana’ is a South Pacific dream come true.