Walt Disney Animation Studios has been a nice roll since 2008’s Bolt, with all but Winnie the Pooh earning at least $250 million, and all but The Princess and the Frog scoring at least 85% with the critics on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a run reminiscent of Pixar or Marvel, not coincidentally both owned by Disney now. But can they keep it going with their second film released this year?
Moana longs to explore the ocean, but going beyond her island’s reef is forbidden. Her father, the chief, is grooming her to take over for him. Just when she has seemingly gotten past her urges to run away from the island and instead take her spot as its leader, a calamity strikes. Her grandmother believes it can be fixed if someone leaves the island, finds the demigod Maui, and convinces him to put right a problem he caused years ago.
It seems like I’m saying this way too much lately in these reviews, but at its core, Moana is your basic two-opposites-go-on-a-road-trip buddy movie. Thankfully the unique setting and characters go a long way to making it feel a bit fresh. The setting is Polynesia. And it is a beautiful and interesting place for an animated movie. Maui is a demigod with a magical fishhook that allows him to transform into animals at will. Moana herself is the daughter of the island’s chief — but don’t call her a princess, as the movie reminds us several times!
TANGENT WARNING! Disney seems to have a love/hate relationship with their princesses. For just about every one of them since Belle in 1991, the writers have gone out of their way to overcompensate for what they consider the mistakes of the past by ensuring they are all strong, independent women who don’t need a man. Nothing wrong with that in principle. Bravo! The problem is when they make the appeal explicit instead of letting it come across naturally. Belle: we’re repeatedly told how odd she is for being smart. Jasmine and Merida: how many times are we reminded they don’t want to get married? Tiana has no time for fun, she has work to do, and she won’t stop telling us about us. On the flip side, Pocahontas and Rapunzel were exactly the type of role models Disney wants — smart, resourceful, and brave. Anna and Elsa (playing with expectations until the very end) proved familial love is just as strong as any other. And no one had to explicitly tell us any of this. They showed it through their actions. It’s almost like the writers don’t trust their audience to get it, or are afraid of being called sexist for not being overt enough with their messaging. Moana is a great princess and role model for little girls, completely different from the older, more vapid princesses of the past. Trust the viewers to notice that without beating us over the head with it.
Sorry about that! Back to the story. Moana is a road-trip-buddy-movie, but it manages to surprise and delight with two characters we enjoy watching interact in places and situations that are interesting and fun. Moana is headstrong and curious, but definitely naive and inexperienced. That plays well against the arrogant and scheming demigod who deep down just wants to be liked. Put the two of them on a small boat for long stretches of film as they also tackle pirates and sea creatures, and the ways they end up butting heads while trying to get along are very entertaining.
Unfortunately, as fun as it can all be the biggest letdown is that the story never really takes any chances. The plot itself feels very by-the-numbers and I even found that many times I knew what characters were going to say before they said it. There’s a nice surprise at the end, but overall, while the characters are great, the settings are interesting, and the action is enjoyable, the story itself is kind of stale. There is never any doubt how any scene is going to turn out. We’re along for a ride, and while the company is great, it’s a trip we’ve made over and over.
Thankfully, the whole thing is so beautiful you might not even notice the story being so predictable. The ocean views are incredible, the island vistas are magnificent, the creatures are all beautifully distinct, and the character designs of the humans are excellent. Especially worthy of note is the animation of Maui’s tattoos. What a remarkable and unique idea executed to perfection!
The voice acting in Moana is top notch across the board. Dwayne Johnson is as much Maui as an actor can be his character. Auli’i Cravalho fits perfectly in the lineup of Disney princess actresses. Rachel House gives a wonderful warmth to Moana’s grandmother. And Jemaine Clement gives a scene-stealing performance as Tamatoa.
The music in the film is by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Polynesian musician Opetaia Foa’i, and composer Mark Mancina. My feelings here are slightly mixed. I love just about all the score and the music in the songs. But I have issues with the lyrics in a few of them. Some of them didn’t seem very… lyrical. More like someone just randomly singing what is happening, without regard to making it musical. Does that make sense? It’s the difference between singing, “This song is from an old story that has been told for a long time” and singing “Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme”. Some of the songs were great and will quickly become Disney classics. But the ones that suffered from this problem were a little more off-putting. Two other notes: First, I was shocked to discover the song Shiny was not written by Flight of the Concords. What a great fit that song was to Clement’s style. Second, could the song titles have been a little more contrasting? Most of them kind of run together and it’s hard to remember which is which!
In the end, Moana feels just slightly disappointing in that if the filmmakers had taken a few more risks with the plot it could have been so much more. But that doesn’t take away from what they did give us: an extremely enjoyable movie, with exceptional performances, stunning animation, good music, and fun characters. No matter who you are, where you are, or how far you’ll go, you know the way to your favorite theatre. This is a worthy addition to the Disney canon. You’ll thank me later. And you’re welcome.
November 23, 2016
directed by Ron Clements and John Musker