Throughout its history, Disney has been synonymous with animation, it defined the studio in their early years, and brought about its resurgence in the early 90’s. While not every film the near 100 years of Disney’s history has been masterpiece, their track record has produce more memorable films than disappointments. Moana continues Walt Disney Animation Studio’s most recent track record of really fun family films that appeals to all ages, young and old alike. Moana, voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, tells the story of a young girl who desperately wants break free of the life she knows, and explore the open sea that has called to her since she was just a small child. Along the way she enlists the help of demigod Maui, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, as she tries to right his wrong, and save her village and her people.
The first thing this film does is create a rich backstory and lore for these characters, as Moana’s Grandmother opens the film teaching the children of the village about the great story of how the islands they call home came to be, and how Maui’s reckless actions long ago, cursed the islands, and threaten to one day destroy their lives. The early exposition not only sets up the hero’s journey, but also gives a sense of culture to this group of people. Moana’s heritage is central to her character, as she is ultimately torn between her call to serve as the next chief of her people, and her sense of adventure. When Moana does decide to leave, it is her connection to her tribe, and her family, that gives added importance to her decision. The folklore aspect also gives an introduction to Maui, who is not thought of as the great hero he wishes, something that helps to give his character more of an arc, and makes him more compelling . The team up of Moana and Maui is rather fun, the two characters play off each other well, as they both have a different path they want to travel, but yet both need each other, and their dynamic is a strong point throughout. Cravalho and Johnson are both funny and charming in the more lighthearted scenes, but both also properly convey emotion when the story calls for it, which is a credit to both actors, and the overall narrative.
While Moana and Maui are the two main characters, as with any good Disney movie there are unusual and unlikely sidekicks. The first, and more prominent sidekick is Moana’s pet chicken, who is dumb as a bag of rocks, a point hammered home a little too often. There are many moments that show the chicken generally just being not very good at life, and while some of them elicit chuckles, most just seem to fall flat. The chicken does have some redeeming moments, but the film could have done with less of the chicken. The other sidekick, which works much better, is the character of the sea itself. Since Moana is the chosen one of the sea, the sea itself aides Moana on this journey. There are multiple instances of the sea catering to Moana by parting open, handing her items, rescuing her from going overboard, which is utilized repeatedly as Maui tries to ditch her and steal the boat for himself. The sea is reminiscent of Aladdin’s magic carpet, as an inanimate object that is given a personality through animation, and is quite enjoyable to watch.
There are not many other characters in the movie beyond Moana’s family, which is ok, but the film could have used more, especially for Moana and Maui to encounter on their journey, as much of the beginning is spent with Moana’s dad warning of the terrible creatures that lie beyond their shores. Besides the final villain, they group only meets two real obstacles, the first are coconut pirates, who too closely resemble Minions and Ewoks to be effective characters. The second, and much better of the two, is a giant crab obsessed with treasure and all that is shiny, voiced by the always hilarious Jemaine Clement, who is fantastic. Clement’s scenes add to an already funny film and it is easier to wonder if there should have been more encounters like this one, since it was one of the better parts of the story, and gave a nice break from just having Moana and Maui together all the time.
The true staple of all the great Disney movies is the music, and while there are plenty of songs in the early part of the movie, none really stand out as being all that memorable. With the help of Hamilton’s Lin Manuel Miranda, the are a couple of catchy tunes, including Maui’s introduction song, which shows off the better than expecting singing voice of the The Rock, but it didn’t feel as if any of the songs would stay in your head beyond the end credits.
The lack of a truly great song, does not impact the film in any way, as it is thoroughly enjoyable and a lot of fun. The film is a well crafted story, with humor, heart, beautiful art and design, and the water and hair animations are some of the best in any animated movie. While Moana does not rank as the best in the long history of Disney, or an instant classic, it is another hit for a studio that continues to earn its reputation as one of the best in the business.