‘MOANA’ Review: Clear Sailing Into the Disney Pantheon

Disney completes its 2016 one-two punch with Moana, a colorful and exuberant nautical fable.

We’re voyagers! …But why did we stop?

–Moana

Moana is intoxicating, like salt spray, or the breeze off the water, or a pristine beach untouched by man. It’s bursting with possibility, like a story told by an elder that can go anywhere or become anything. It’s affirming, like the lesson our adventurous protagonist learns at its end to chase down her dreams her own dang self. But really, though, the film is just pure joy.

Marking the first computer-animated release from longtime Disney hands Ron Clements & John Musker (The Little Mermaid, The Princess & the Frog), Moana is also a towering achievement for the medium: from the gracefully undulating waves to the demigod Maui’s luscious locks, the studio revels in its technical advances. To use the cliché, every frame really is a painting. Or perhaps in this case, one of those social media accounts that just posts photos of tropical destinations for middle-aged people to sigh over. The point is, it looks absolutely stunning.

On the other hand, at this stage we expect it to. Of course it looks stunning — it’s made by some of the best animators and graphics wizards in the world! The fact that it lives up to that evocative first piece of concept art is praiseworthy, but that’s not what makes a classic, right? You need lovable characters, memorable songs, and that innate warmth that Disney, when it’s firing on all cylinders, still does better than anyone else. Guess what — Moana has all that too, capping off a banner year for the studio that, along with this spring’s Zootopia, sees it indisputably back on top of the mountain.**

**I might be the biggest Pixar fanboy you know, but when you pair the studios’ last five releases against each other, it’s unfortunately no contest. For Pixar: Brave, Monsters University, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory; For Disney: Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana. The pendulum may swing back in the future and you have to account for John Lasseter & Ed Catmull’s cross-pollination, but the mothership has owned this decade.

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Set two thousand years ago in Polynesia, Moana is a tried-and-true combo of ancient myth and modern storytelling convention. Our titular heroine (voiced by Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of her island’s chief, but don’t call her a princess. Her real love is the ocean, drawn to it from a young age as we see in an adorable prologue. As its own character in the film (rendered here like a much friendlier version of The Abyss), it doesn’t give her powers as much as aid, and direction of a “chosen one” kind. But here on Motunu, everyone is happy, and no one leaves. Why would they, when everyone is so happy?

Her peoples’ reluctance to journey outward, specifically her father’s (Temeura Morrison), leaves the free-spirited Moana feeling hemmed in, with only her grandmother (the “village crazy,” played by Rachel House) recognizing early what Moana is meant for. The film takes its time introducing us to this island culture, the better to show why it will be worth saving. By the time Moana has her literal “sit on a rock and sing about what she wants in life” song, “How Far I’ll Go,” (much less of an assault than Frozen’s ubiquitous “Let It Go”) we’re already fully on her side, absorbed by the world Musker, Clements, Don Hall, and Chris Williams have built for us after years of research. But it’s important that Moana’s first, impulsive expedition is beaten back by the waves; it’s only when she’s given her save-the-world quest that the seas literally part for her. At its heart is a question that’s kept historians busy for a long time: why did the ancient Polynesians, master sailors and explorers, stop exploring?

In the world of Moana, the answer is Maui: shape-shifter, demigod of the wind and sea, hero of men. A millennium ago, he stole a sacred stone, awakened a dark power/lava demon, and has been marooned on a stony outcropping ever since. Now the darkness is finally spreading across the dangerous sea to Moana’s home island, so it’s her job to sail Maui back to return the stone and fix the world. Simple, really. Except that Maui, for all the abilities his magic fish hook gives him, is mostly a braggart, blowhard, and mansplainer — qualities that would kill a film’s second lead if he was voiced by anyone other than Dwayne Johnson. His introductory tune, the bouncy “You’re Welcome,” reveals all we need to know about his boisterous but innately lovable personality, especially with the mobile, two-dimensional chest tattoo serving as his conscience. Johnson hams it up, and has no trouble belting out the high notes or hitting the rap breakdown.

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Both also come courtesy of Moana’s gifted musical team, Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda. As someone obsessed with the latter, it makes me giddy to see Miranda, now fresh off his Tony-winning juggernaut, practically joining the Disney stable full-time — he’s starring in a new Mary Poppins (alongside Emily Blunt), now shooting, and has recently let slip that he’s working on a mysterious secret project with Zootopia co-director Byron Howard.

Here, however, his lyrical gifts work in perfect harmony (excuse me) with Mancina’s music and the Oceanic influences the half-Tokelauan, half-Tuvaluan, Samoan-born Foa’i introduces. They do both big anthems, like the dual-language “We Know the Way,” and slyly dense character numbers like “Shiny.” You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement-as-David Bowie-as Giant Evil Crab. The melodies might not be as catchy as Frozen’s, but I’d bet they’ll be more fun to sing along to in your minivan.

That sequence, one of several in Moana’s episodic adventure narrative (Voyage of the Dawn Treader by way of Zelda’s Wind Waker), shows off the playfulness that Musker and Clements are perhaps best known for. Their long careers have given us traditional fairy tales, but also the anarchy of Aladdin’s Genie and the meta hijinks of Hercules. (Moana opens similarly to that underrated film, using tapestries in place of Grecian urns.) Here, we have the best of both worlds. Moana expertly balances the characters’ inner lives, their struggle over what it means to be “authentic,” with screwball comedy —  like a Fury Road-inspired aquatic chase with a tribe of tiny coconut people, or anything involving Hei Hei the chicken, likely the stupidest character in all of the Disney canon.

It’s hard to argue that Disney’s 56th animated feature isn’t a surefire four-quadrant hit, with something for aspiring princesses, music lovers, adventurers, and anyone who just wants to watch a flightless bird blissfully run into walls for an hour and a half. (Those are the four quadrants, right?)

Grade: A


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