Walt Disney Animation Studios has sure had a damn strong couple of years, and 2016 has shaped up to be their best yet. Back in March, I was sure that Zootopia would forever be locked in as my favorite animated film of the year. The fact that Moana has me questioning this sentiment speaks volumes to its quality.
Moana opens with a 2-D animated retelling of the legend of Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a demigod who stole the heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, in a vain attempt to appear heroic to humanity. This creates a terrible disruption in nature, driving fish away from islands, killing various plant life, generally bad nature stuff. Not only that, it causes Maui to lose his demigod shape-shifting powers. Moana’s (Auliʻi Cravalho) tribe had secluded themselves on a remote island for generations after Maui’s betrayal, that is until this corruption begins to affect their home. Without any other options, Moana sets out on a courageous journey to find Maui, assist him in regaining his power, and aid him in returning the heart to Te Fiti in hopes of saving her home.
Scripted by Jared Bush (Zootopia), Moana follows the typical chosen one/hero’s journey arc, but cleverly fuses it with the familiar tropes of classic Disney princesses and subtly subverts and deconstructs them at every turn. For example, she begins the film with an adorable baby pig as her companion, aping off the cute animal friend trope that is so prevalent in these princess films. However, by the time she sets off on her voyage, she is unintentionally paired with a not-so-cute, colorful, mentally deficient chicken (with clucks provided by Alan Tudyk, oddly).
Even with this deconstruction that is ever-present in the background, there is authentic heart and sincerity at the core of Moana’s story. Moana’s familial bonds can genuinely be felt, especially her connection with grandma, which proves to be exceptionally poignant. The relationship between Maui and Moana is great as well. Inevitably, the pair doesn’t get along too well at first. Yet as their adventuring continues their bond proceeds to strengthen grow, with a legitimate sense of companionship eventually forming. The pair plays off each other extremely well and their constant bickering is ripe with comedic gold. Remarkably, the film never even hints at any romance, opting for a completely platonic relationship.
There’s actually no romantic subplot for Moana, no prince charming needed to sweep her off her feet and save the day. No, Moana is a bona fide bad ass and is perfectly capable of saving the world on her own. And it is so damn refreshing. Moana is technically considered a princess, but there is nothing particularly “princessy” about her. This sets her apart from other Disney princesses and is part of the reason I love her character so much.
This is helped by the fact that Moana’s voice actress is absolutely fantastic. Cravalho was only fourteen years old when she recorded the voice work for this film, her first role ever, but you’d be hard pressed to realize that. Cravalho brings an earnest quality to the character. She also possesses quite the powerful singing voice, which sure came in handy with the large number of musical numbers present in the film.
All of the original songs in the film are composed by the extraordinarily talented Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) and Opetaia Foa’i. These tunes are a delight to listen to, they are emotionally stirring and engaging. They even give Dwayne Johnson a chance to flex his singing chops, bringing the same self-imposed swagger of Maui to the music. Johnson is perfect as the boisterous, over-the-top Maui. He brings an immeasurable amount of energy to both the film and character, and his introductory musical number performance of “You’re Welcome” stands out as one of the best scenes of the entire film.
The animation quality in Moana may be the most impressive I have ever seen. Every single frame of this film is fucking gorgeous, with the use of water and lava effects standing out as particularly stunning. Moana’s journey brings her to many exotic places that each allow the animators to go nuts. These scenes include a seemingly Mad Max inspired coconut monster pirate barge, a shiny disco crab-monster lair (featuring an enjoyable surprise appearance of Jemaine Clement’s singing talents), and a face off against a colossal lava monster. Not only are these scenes appealing in a purely visual sense, the action manages to be thrilling as well. Even with these marvelously bombastic scenes, the smaller moments simply consisting Moana and Maui sailing across the sea manage to stand out as remarkably beautiful.
Simply put, Moana is yet another knockout from Walt Disney Animation Studios, and the current pantheon of Disney princesses should consider themselves honored to have Moana join their ranks.