It’s been a truly stellar year for animation, and even though Pixar’s long-awaited sequel Finding Dory and Walt Disney Animation’s brilliant, socially conscious Zootopia were tremendous contributions that should find themselves on plenty of Top 10 lists, Disney isn’t finished with 2016 just yet. Reaching back into their repertoire and dusting off a tried-and-true formula for success, the studio has tapped Aladdin and The Little Mermaid directors Ron Clements and John Musker to bring the same sense of excitement and wonder to Moana, a thrilling tale of adventure and discovery set against the backdrop of the South Pacific seas.
Heavily influenced by Oceanic culture, the film opens with the story of Maui, a shape-shifting demigod who steals the shimmering green heart of Te Fiti, the mother island from whom all life springs. But before Maui can escape, he’s confronted by Te Kā, a demon of earth and fire who strikes him from the skies and sends him plummeting to the depths of the ocean along with his prize. The loss of Te Fiti’s heart unleashes a curse that begins spreading across the ocean, snuffing out life and engulfing the islands into darkness.
At least that’s what Gramma Tala (Rachel House) believes, but her son, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), dismisses the story as nothing more than a legend meant to frighten children. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect on Moana (newcomer Auli‘i Cravalho), who dreams of being the one to fulfill the prophecy and end the curse by venturing beyond the barrier reef, locating Maui and delivering him across the sea to return the heart of Te Fiti. Her desire manifests in the film’s best song, “How Far I’ll Go,” a stirring and emotional ballad written by Hamilton creator Lin-Manual Miranda that has the potential to become another colossal hit on the same level as Frozen’s “Let It Go.”
There’s just one problem: sailing beyond the protection of the reef is strictly forbidden. But if a few pesky rules never managed to stop other headstrong Disney heroines, they certainly won’t be enough to deter Moana from pursuing her destiny, and soon she’s on her way across the ocean accompanied by Heihei, a bug-eyed chicken whose stupidity provides a near-constant source of laughter. Moana’s journey takes her to a desolate island where she does indeed find the missing Maui (Dwayne Johnson). But instead of the benevolent demigod who pulled islands from the sea with his fishhook or lassoed the sun to make the days longer, she discovers a self-obsessed braggart who revels in boasting about his accomplishments via another Miranda-penned tune, “You’re Welcome,” which Johnson gamely tackles with the same kind of zest and charisma that has rendered him a pop culture icon.
There’s disappointment on both sides here, with Maui embarrassed that his rescue has come at the hands of a princess – “you’re wearing a dress and you have an animal sidekick,” he says pointedly – and Moana dismayed that the fearsome warrior of legend seems far more interested in adding to his own mythology than rescuing her people. But it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without a journey of self-discovery, and the events that follow have a few surprises in store for both of our heroes as they make their way across the ocean toward their destinies.
Moana marks the first foray into pure CG animation for Clements and Musker, although the film also employs a bit of classic hand-drawn artistry into Maui’s tattoos, which come to life as he relates tales of his adventures and include a “mini-Maui” silhouette that he frequently argues with. But even though the film is awash in the lush, vibrant images that have become a hallmark of the studio’s more recent productions, this still feels like classic Disney at its finest, and the sensibilities that turned the duo’s previous efforts into some of the most revered animated films of all time are alive and well here.
As with most of Disney’s classics, the music of Moana plays a significant role in the storytelling. The Tony-winning Miranda, who boarded the film before Hamilton became a worldwide phenomenon, joins forces with Disney alum Mark Mancina (Tarzan, Broadway’s The Lion King) and Opetaia Foa‘i, creator and lead singer of the band Te Vaka, for a soundtrack that honors the culture of its Polynesian influences. Audiences are almost sure to be humming the voyaging anthem “We Know the Way” as they exit the theater, but it’s just one of many equally strong selections.
The biggest piece of the puzzle is Moana herself, and Cravalho – who earned the role after multiple auditions, beating out hundreds of competitors – imbues the character with a fiery determination, willing to break from convention and challenge authority for the sake of her people, and unafraid to take risks in pursuit of her dreams. Most refreshing of all, there’s not even a hint of a love story here: Moana isn’t defined by her connection to the men in her life, and her journey isn’t about finding romance, it’s about discovering who she truly is and where she belongs in the world.
Funny, exciting and poignant, Moana is another top-notch effort from the talented team at Walt Disney Animation, offering a refreshing spin on the princess formula inspired by a culture that is so rarely represented in Hollywood. Stunningly gorgeous visuals, vividly realized characters and beautiful, memorable songs combine to create one of this year’s most enjoyable animated films. Not only is Moana one of Disney’s best heroines in recent memory, she’s one of the best characters the studio has ever created, period.
It may hew closely to the tried-and-true Disney formula, but Moana still manages to provide plenty of fresh ideas, honoring a culture that is too seldom represented in mainstream cinema and creating a fearless new heroine that children can look up to.