Keeping count? You now have to go back to either 2011’s delightful Winnie The Pooh or 2007’s really underrated Meet The Robinsons to find a Walt Disney Animation Studios project that didn’t both win over audiences, and deliver commercially. Because right now, the studio is in the midst of an incredible run, that earlier this year saw Zootropolis cross $1bn at the box office, in a period where more blockbusters than not are falling short.
In short, Walt Disney Animation Studios is on an almost-unparalleld run of continued success for it at the moment. And there is no way that Moana will derail that.
It’s the first film for directors Ron Clements and John Musker since their delightful hand-drawn production, The Princess And The Frog, in 2009. Their CV reads like many of our DVD shelves: The Little Mermaid? Aladdin? Hercules? The pair were integral to the resurrection of Disney animation in the 80s and 90s, and the number of worn out VHS tapes and scratched discs are testament to their work.
But whilst you can’t help but draw a few The Little Mermaid (and maybe even Pocahontas) parallels watching Moana, the truth is that they’ve ventured off in a different direction again. Their focus is on a film where only two characters are on screen for a surprising amount of time. Furthermore, it’s an apparent Disney princess story that barely mutters the word, instead introducing the title character as an explorer, one who’s not sidetracked by a shoehorned-in love interest. In fact, there’s no love interest at all. It feels more radical than it really should be.
For this is Moana, the daughter of the chief on the small island of Motunui. Motunui is struggling, though. Food supplies are in decline, but she and the rest of the island’s inhabitants are forbidden to go beyond the dangerous reef by Moana’s father, chief Tui. It’s a ruling that’s broken fairly quickly, of course, and this sets Moana on her path to confronting egotistical demi-god, Maui.
To this point, the film has been delightful. The songs, from Lin-Manual Miranda and Opetaia Foa’I, become earworms even before they’re finished; the visual splendour is quite something. I wonder how far we are away now from animators deliberately dialling things back a few notches, so realistic their work is becoming. The water in Moana, for instance, simply looks like water, and the detail of the Polynesian surroundings is breathtaking.
But when Moana and Maui come together, Moana the movie really soars. The voice pairing of Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson proves inspired, and their adventure is by turns funny, a bit scary, and huge fun to watch.
Some little bits are overegged: the physical comedy of Heihei the dimwit chicken works at first, but as the film progresses, the gag wears thin, and Heihei feels out of place. Furthermore, as visually striking – and scary – as the ultimate villain of the film proves to be at first, for some time it’s notably the least interesting character in the movie. Not that Moana as a movie needs such a foe to push against, it’s just surprising that – from Professor Rattigan and Ursula through to Doctor Facilier – villains have been a strongpoint in Musker and Clements’ work.
But then, at the moments you wonder if the film is just slipping a little, the pair are three steps ahead of you. An example? There’s a sequence where the film takes a breath to allow Jemaine Clement’s Tamatoa to belt out the song Shiny, an exemplary tribute to David Bowie, that just makes you want to stand up and applaud. In fact, many of the excellent songs have the same effect, and by the time we get to the powerful I Am Moana, goosebumps were climbing out of my arm.
What Disney is doing with these films certainly shouldn’t be taken for granted, and I do wonder if the seeming ease at which they come along, around once a year, is blinding us to just what a period in the company’s animation life this is.
In days of old, the studio would have placed the moral of the story in the foreground, and still delivered a quality film. Now, though – even though perhaps the narrative is a little straight here – we get a film like Moana, rich in subtext, detail, and things to quietly say to an audience that’ll barely be able to take their eyes off the screen. In an era where many of its rivals churn out 90 minute exercises in keeping the kids quiet, Moana is but the latest example of a different way: a film with plenty to it, exquisite music, rousing moments, and a spell that makes you want to go straight in and watch it again once the post-credits sequence is over.
Its only real rival for the best mainstream animated movie in the last 12 months is Disney’s Zootropolis (although Kubo And The Two Strings is visible in its rear view). And that’s, rightfully, quite telling.
Bottom line? Yes.
Moana is in UK cinemas from December 2nd.