Walt Disney Animation Studios' Moana, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog), is pure magic. The film tells the story of born-way finder Moana Waialiki, daughter of Chieftain Tui (Temuera Morrison) and mother Sina (Nicole Scherzinger), who sets out on a mission to save the people of the island of Motonui, Moana's home. Moana, played by 15 year-old newcomer Auli'i Cravahlo, is simply one of the best heroines in Disney's canon. Her fierce tenacity and desire for adventure provide perfect motivation for her journey to save her people. Combining the best in Disney character establishment, storytelling, and world building, the Polynesian-set musical is yet another example of Disney Animation's reestablished reign over competitive sibling studio Pixar for the title of “King of Animation."
The story begins with a prologue provided by Moana's Gramma Tala (Rachel House) explaining how thousands of years ago, demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the Heart of Te Fiti, a powerful gem that enables the creation of life. However, with the heart taken from it's resting place, Maui enabled darkness to consume the mortal world, destroying Te Fiti, the mother island of Oceania. Maui would soon be confronted by the wrathful lava demon, Te Kā, who sought the power of the gem for herself. Te Kā fought and beat Maui, loosing both the heart and his magical fishhook to the depths of the sea. The enabling of darkness to consume the human world is what sets in motion Moana's journey to help save her people. The ocean chooses Moana as the one to find Maui, regain his fishhook, and restore the heart to Te Fiti. This is where Moana's journey begins.
The complex backstory is well constructed and provides a unique introduction to Moana's story. Even more impressive is directors Clements and Musker's dedication to the authenticity of Polynesian culture and mythology brought to life onscreen. From the opening song (all of which are brilliantly written by Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda and co-partners Opetaia Foa'i and composer Mark Mancina) "Where You Are," we immediately get a sense of the scope of research that the Disney team undertook. It is abundantly clear that careful attention to detail was of utmost priority in researching authentic, traditional Polynesian culture through the ceremonial dances, headdresses and garb, and social hierarchy that is presented onscreen.
Following the smash hits Frozen and Zootopia, Moana brilliantly captures a grand sense of scale and expertise in storytelling and world building. In the year 2016, it's almost negligible to mention the outstanding animation, rendering, and effects of Moana's production. Additionally, screenwriter Jared Bush (Zootopia) continues to impress in creative execution of character motivation. His smart dialogue and interactions between Moana and Maui provide some of the film's best entertainment.
Aside from Cravahlo’s inspiring Moana, Johnson’s Maui and House’s Gramma Tala stand out as some of the best Disney characters in recent memory. Maui is just as charismatic as Johnson himself, but with added depth and character trauma that makes the character, especially in the film’s third act, truly memorable. Similarly, Gramma Tala is more than just the village “crazy lady,” as she puts it. She provides an ancestral understanding of why Moana is the ocean’s “chosen one” and why she must build a better life for her people. Gramma Tala is also incredibly witty and eccentric thanks to Rachel House’s unique vocal tones and range. She exudes a deep-set familial desire for adventure and provides Moana an outlet to vent against her father’s conservative wishes.
With Moana being a musical, it would be blasphemy to miss the opportunity to divulge the musical genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Tony Award Winning creator of In The Heights and Hamilton, Miranda is the perfect musical partner for a film as unique in it’s structure, storytelling, and execution as Moana. Miranda, along with Polynesian influence and songwriter Opetaia Foa’i, is able to bring his storytelling in songwriting expertise to Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go,” the film's equivalent to Arielle’s “Part of Your World,” from The Little Mermaid. Similarly, in Maui’s showstopper “You’re Welcome,” we really get that Hamilton Broadway rap-like style that has come to set Miranda apart from his peers. Miranda’s rapping, sung beautifully by charismatic Johnson, perfectly melds with the culturally authentic sounds of the Pacific Islands.
The film Moana, more so than the magnetic characters, captivating world building, and soon to be modern-classic songs, cements a new definition of the modern Disney princess film. Moana, similar to the heroines in Mulan and Brave, does not rely on a love interest to define her life journey. Moana is a go-getter, a dreamer, a doer. Her grandmother’s love drives her to find her true self. Yes, she has a pet sidekick. Yes, she wears a dress. But she’s not apologizing for these tropes. Rather, she uses them to frame a conversation about what it means to be a true heroine. And one we can be sure ole Uncle Walt would be proud of.
Overall Grade: A-