For years Disney it seemed as if had lost their way in the world of animated features. Aside from the Pixar movies they funded and distributed, the studio that was built on feature length animation had lost touch with what worked artistically and in the market place. Then, John Lasseter was asked to help Disney relaunch their animation brand while he ran Pixar and everything changed. Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Zootopia didn’t just put Disney back in the win column, they’ve arguably topped Lasseter’s own studio in the process. Now we have Moana, a sweeping musical adventure that once again kicks that old Disney princess can but emerges as something that feels fresh and alive.
Youngster Auli’I Cravalho voices the titular Moana. Technically she’s a princess, in that she’s the daughter of a tribal chief on an island in the middle of the ocean who is set to inherit the village. They live a simple and happy life in isolation. The ocean and the island provide seemingly everything that they need. Moana has wanderlust though, and has wanted to leave ever since she was a child. The ocean agrees as well, magically parting and carrying her whenever she sets out into the water. The only challenge is that her father (Temuera Morrison) had a traumatic experience on the ocean in his youth and won’t let her go. However, when things start to get rough at home, Moana ventures out to find a demigod named Maui (Dwayne “The Rock, always The Rock” Johnson) to return a jewel heart to a goddess and restore peace to her home.
Moana is a very different breed of Disney princess, if she can even be called that. She’s an adventurer and a hero. There is no prince charming—only Maui’s goofball demigod buddy with superpowers and animated tattoos that tell his life story. Together their quest is filled with wild spectacle and giant monsters. Dwayne Johnson is as goddamn delightful as always, even when his performance is limited entirely to voice acting. He’s filled with jokes and heart that carry the entertainment value far. Cravalho is a natural in the lead—strong, warm, and worthy of her hero’s journey. Around the edges folks like Flight Of The Chonchords’ Jemaine Clement provide all sorts of eccentric comedic diversions. Yet, it’s the central duo who deliver the heart of the movie and they are a wonderful team mercifully devoid of anything remotely resembling a tacked on love story.
The animation and spectacle are astounding. Designs stay true to the smoothly sweet Disney house style, yet more colourful, vivid, and bizarre in keeping with the mythical Polynesian setting. It’s pure eye candy, with plenty of grand action scenes and monster battles that could put many comic book blockbusters to shame (especially those directed by Zack…no…he’s been mocked enough). Despite the fact that viewers can take solace in the safety of Disney’s usual invisible body count, there are some genuinely thrilling and even mildly frightening sequences here that are a bit more intense than the Disney norm. The studio clearly strived for something familiar and fresh here and delivered a movie that should be fondly remembered for a while. The four-headed directing team are Disney veterans with resumes dating back as far as The Little Mermaid, retaining the classic Disney charm while pushing for more epic action and mild darkness than they’ve done in a while. It’s pure crowd-pleasing stuff, just like the house of mouse is known for.
There are also songs of course. This is a musical and the team of Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Mirand provide a diverse range of lyrical and musical styles than this sort of Disney feature typically delivers. The only catch? As sweeping and pretty and funny and exciting as this flick might be, it does feel like a mild step back from what the studio delivered already this year in Zootopia. There was a maturity in the humour, thematic complexity, message, and style of that movie that felt more Pixar than Disney. This one is more traditional Disney fare despite all of its blockbuster bells and whistles, so it’ll feel like a half step back for the animation nerds out there who care about such things. Still, a holiday Disney animated musical carries its own set of expectations and Moana delivers all of them and then tosses in a few surprises for good measure. That’ll do Disney…that’ll do just fine.