It’s pretty easy to say these days that Walt Disney Animation Studios is going through a second renaissance. The writing was on the wall of the Dolby Theatre when Frozen took home two Oscars in 2014 while also crossing $1 billion worldwide. And since that unabashed throwback to classic Disney storytelling, the House of Mouse has had even more hits like Big Hero 6 and the surprisingly subversive Zootopia. Still, it was only a matter of time until we returned to Broadway ballads and ingénue aspirations. It was only a matter of time until Moana, the most unapologetically wide-eyed and delightful escapism you’ll find in movie theaters this Thanksgiving season.
A mix of something old and something new, Moana is from directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the duo who helmed The Little Mermaid and Aladdin oh, so many childhoods ago. Yet, in addition to marking the pair’s first-time at overseeing a fully computer-generated movie, they are also returning to their Disney truisms with a healthy dose of urgency to progressively modernize the “princess movie,” not least of which involves refusing to call the eponymous Moana a princess. She is the daughter of a Polynesian chieftain, and she lives on a peaceful island where no one bats an eye at the thought of her one day leading these people without question. (So more modern than even our world?)
However, like many other protagonists in this art form before her, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) has a dreamy song in her heart that involves not staying on her glistening childhood home of Motunui. Rather, she yearns for adventure, hoping to see what’s beyond her community’s seaside sunsets. What a shame it is then that her father forbids anyone in their village to sail past the nearby reef; there has been no seafaring exploration for a thousand years. Not since a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of a goddess, getting himself marooned in the process and dooming all of the Polynesian islands’ wayfinders from ever coming home again.
Nevertheless, the sea takes a liking to Moana. Quite literally, as the ocean is every bit the sidekick to the teenage heroine as a certain magic carpet was for a poor boy from the streets in Aladdin, interacting with her and urging her to go beyond its translucent waves, to find the long-shipwrecked Maui, and to force him to return the goddess’ heart, thereby saving Moana’s people and all the Polynesian islands from an agricultural complacency. Of course, when your demigod is voiced by Dwayne Johnson as a cross between a rock star and professional wrestler, actually wrangling him into being a selfless hero is a journey unto itself.
On its own merits, Moana is an exceedingly joyful film and every bit the life-affirming catharsis many will be looking for this holiday season, particularly if you have a daughter during these times. Whereas Clements and Musker’s last film, The Princess and the Frog, got bogged down in storytelling cul-de-sacs and less than inspiring music from Randy Newman, Moana has a buoyancy that allows it to glide across its gorgeous renderings of aquatic life. And this is in no small part aided by a full collection of charming songs that are instant earworms, including the typical “I Want” first act plea (it’s called “How Far I’ll Go Here” here), Maui’s boastful ode to self-congratulation, “You’re Welcome,” and a pretty nifty use of Jermaine Clement’s implicitly wry vocals for “Shiny,” a ‘70s-esque embrace of vanity as espoused by a monstrous 50-foot sea crab who has an affinity for sparkly things.
The songs are themselves provided by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina. Miranda’s inclusion is most obvious with Johnson and Clement’s ditties since there is a sprightly mischievousness (and relentlessness) to the lyrics not seen in most Disney musicals. Hence, why this will inevitably complete Miranda’s deserved PEGOT (Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). But one cannot ignore the special contributions of Foa’i, whose career as a “South Pacific Fusion” songwriter alone demonstrates the importance WDAS has placed in downplaying its image as a frequent culprit of cultural reappropriation.
Moana provides multiple overtures toward depicting Polynesian culture favorably and as authentically as a world filled with animal sidekicks can be. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits from this is the casting of Moana herself, who is voiced by the 15-year-old and Hawaiian Cravalho. Her vocals, which includes a remarkable singing gift, informs the character with an infectious excitement for life, all while Disney consciously denies what would have once been mandatory clichés for their driven heroine, such as a requisite love interest.
Unfortunately, as good as the performances, songs, and animation tend to be, the movie can still quizzically play it too safe at times. Despite her proactive sensibilities, Moana is in some ways an inversion of the directors’ first princess, Ariel, save now instead of being a mermaid who wants to see land, she is a landlubber who dreams of the sea. Similarly, the third act of Moana lacks a real villain or sense of menace, resulting in a less-than-thrilling finale and some very familiar storytelling beats for the parents to watch pass by. Granted, the film’s target audience won’t mind, but after Frozen and Zootopia both managed to surprise all audiences with genuine twists, the basic broad strokes of Moana’s storyboarding leaves something to be desired when so many of the other details are bursting with life.
Luckily, at the end of the day, the film comes down to the immensely appealing rapport between Cravalho and Johnson, the latter of whom exudes the kind of charisma not seen by animated Disney characters since the days of Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy. Even Maui’s tattoos (which are actual two-dimensional animation) are teeming with bravado. Coupled with the visual delights of the ocean’s animation, Miranda’s lyricism, and a defiant creativity from WDAS that is lacking in the company’s live-action divisions, Moana becomes a more than worthy installment to the high-standards associated with classic Disney musicals. It might not be able to let it go quite as well as Frozen, but this is an undeniable treasure that families will be setting sail toward again and again for years to come.
Moana is in theaters on Wednesday, Nov. 23.