Rewind: Review of “Moana”

by Michael Henley

At this point, it can no longer be denied that we’re standing in a new golden age of Disney animation. These things happen in cycles. No one can dispute the classic era of the 40’s and 50’s, and then for many animation students the Disney studios had a creative peak in the late 80’s and early 90’s, which is when we got Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and others. Then came the dark times of the early 2000’s–even hardcore Disney enthusiasts would be hard pressed to fondly recall Brother Bear or Meet the Robinsons.

But now we’re back. It’s tough to say when exactly this new era started (2009’s Princess and the Frog, perhaps?) but the recent line speaks for itself: Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6…the list goes on. Just this past spring, we had the instant classic Zootopia, which ranks as one of the best things the animation studio has down in about two decades. Now here is Moana, a charming, lovely musical fantasy that sets itself at the crossroads between Hawaiian myth and cheerful 21st century progressivism. The film has a strong pedigree–its directors are Ron Clements and John Musker, who made Mermaid and coutless others—and if anything maybe the one thing you could say against it is that they remember their successes all too well, in spots.

But if it’s done well, that’s a lesser concern. And Moana is done very well. The design and animation conspire to create a stretch of Pacific islands that are by turns lush and menacing. This is the land of Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) and her village—they’re good people who are nestled on an island protected by a reef, and the long-held tradition is that they stay where they are and keep to themselves. Moana, the daughter of the chief (Temuera Morrison), however, is headstrong and free-spirited in the proudest Disney tradition (she and Belle would get along just fine), and her desire to reclaim her ancestors’ status as explorers of the seas puts her at odds with everyone.

But adventure calls, and it knows where you live. With an environmental disaster imminent and a headful of wild myths with perhaps dubious authenticity, Moana grabs a sailboat and charts a course to restore a sacred stone to its rightful place. This involves finding and calling upon Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a demigod who Johnson plays as an obnoxious blowhard who believes his own press; he gets some of the film’s funniest lines, of which there are many. His sly self-awareness and his larger-than-life commentary fondly—if only just a little–recall Robin Williams’ Genie from Aladdin, right down to the meta moment when he opines to Moana: “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” He’s talking there about Moana’s other companion, Heihei, a chicken whose level of sheer stupidity is almost awe-inspiring. A silent partner in all this is the sea itself, which can sometimes part at Moana’s command, and other times manifests itself as a series of helpful, inquisitive tendrils that remind you of the pseudopods from The Abyss.

There’s your typical serious of setpieces that follow: a confrontation with a race of sentient coconut pirates that riffs on—of all things—Mad Max: Fury Road. A trip into the lair of an artifact-hoarding cocoanut crab (Jemaine Clement). A climactic battle with a wailing lava monster. All done with beautifully expressive and vivid animation—this is a top shelf effort every step of the way. But the key to the film is the uneasy relationship between Moana and Maui, how its ebbs and flows comment on each’s level of self-confidence. Johnson is a delight, but he doesn’t get in the way. Cravalho is the real star, and the animators and her together make Moana a splendidly strong and resourceful heroine–a princess, yes, but a refreshingly tough one. And the movie has—my goodness—absolutely no romance, focusing instead on telling the story cleanly and not cluttering it up. That’s a serious and welcome slap to the Disney formula, the type of experimenting with story that the studio has aggressively been doing more and more often these days. I like it. A lot.

And the songs, by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Opetaia Foa’I and Mark Mancina, are top-to-bottom wonderful. Recently, Disney animation has sometimes abandoned the musical-comedy form, which is fine, but the ones that do throw their hat in the ring have had uneven results. I have trouble remembering a single song from Tangled or Princess and the Frog, and I still contend that Frozen had too few songs, and only half of them were as good as they should have been. Moana, however, has a full songbook—there’s a little comic relief (Johnson sings Maui’s self-aggrandizing “You’re Welcome,” and it’s goofy fun), a little scene setting (the opening number, “Where You Are,” warmly sets up the movie’s buried themes), a little jeopardy (Clement’s villain song, “Shiny,” is a Bowie-inspired ode to undersea booty). And the big solo number, “How Far I’ll Go,” is a sweeping earworm that will be earning well-deserved spots on Disney playlists shortly (it’s better than “Let it Go,” by the way). It’s the best Disney soundtrack in a long long time.

Disney films—like others—sometimes get lumped into “boy movies,” and “girl movies.” (Example: Jungle Book? Boy movie. Cinderella? Girl movie.) But I’ve never bought into that. Good films are good films, period. I’m sure Moana will be labeled as a “girl movie,” because it centers on a young girl, but it tells such an effective story about finding your own way that only the most stubborn of boys would insist that they can’t relate. That said, Moana is part of a whole vein that Disney has tapped recently that examines what it means to be female in a Disney movie (remember how the love story in Frozen ended up being familial, not romantic), and the results have been encouraging and exciting. The studiowide slow push for diversity is opening up storytelling in a lot of ways. And that’s really rather great.

It’s funny—when you go to see a good children’s film in the theater, you’re frequently bombarded by trailers for ones that look—frankly—not so good. It’s a genre that inspires a lot of bottom-feeding; the going thought is that kids will enjoy anything, but kids like not having their intelligence insulted more than you’d think. Anyway, as I watched that reel of trailers, I was struck by the fact that Pixar’s making—of all things–a Cars 3. How odd that for a while, Pixar was the one keeping the mouse house afloat, and these days it seems like the studio could do just as well creatively without them. But these things happen in cycles; one day Pixar will be back on top and Disney will be struggling. So it goes. Or, to borrow a phrase from both a Disney animated film and J.M. Barrie: “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”

But forget all that. Moana is happening now. And you should see it.