With locations, music and talent unlike any other Disney film, it’s no wonder “Moana” has been one of the animation studio’s most anticipated films in recent years. The triumphant directorial return of Disney legends John Musker and Ron Clements (directors of “The Great Mouse Detective,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Hercules,” “Treasure Planet” and “The Princess and the Frog”) features songs co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton”). It also Disney’s first foray into the culture of the South Pacific Islanders, which opens a lot of possibilities for the storytellers and animators to create something we’ve truly never seen before in one of their animated features. So, can “Moana” live up to these expectations while still standing out in Disney’s vast library of animated classics, or will it ultimately drown in waves of disappointment?
Our story focuses on Moana (voiced by 16-year-old Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of a chief on an unspecified Polynesian Island. Moana is in training to become chief of the village, which she does a good job at, but her home becomes endangered when island’s resources mysteriously start to diminish. She soon discovers this is because of an ancient legend, telling of the demigod, Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) and how he stole the heart of the island goddess, Te Fiti, in order to gain its power. Now Moana must decide if she will disobey her father’s rule of never going beyond the reef in order to find Maui and make things right.
The animation here is nothing short of breath-taking. The environments are all grand in scope and stunning to look at, with a wide variety of colors and textures to keep them interesting and help keep the movie’s island theme consistent. The use of the environment here is also a great example of the film’s great creativity, with the elements becoming living, breathing characters that add a sense of danger and, surprisingly, comedy. This can be seen in the use of the ocean as its own character helping Moana during her adventure and the film’s main obstacle, a giant volcano monster. At the same time, the attention to detail is insane, as everything from the water and landscapes to the character’s clothing and tattoos clearly show this team went out of their way to capture a culture and ultimately drench the movie in loads of atmosphere.
The characters are also some of the best Disney has ever shelled out, particularly the main duo of Moana and Maui. Moana is likely to become a favorite among Disney fans. Her motivations are very different from other Disney “princesses” and even her backstory has a lot of differences. She’s not looking for love or a man in her life (there’s actually no love interest in the movie, which I found very refreshing) and not wishing to rebel just for the sake of rebelling, but rather she has to break the rules to save her village. The film makes it very clear she is proud of her culture and where she comes from, which is a refreshing breath of fresh air, very realistic and a great theme that younger viewers especially can take from her character. Sixteen-year-old Cravalho does a magnificent job at giving this character quirks that bring Moana to life and make her truly stand on her own as one of Disney’s best heroines.
At first, Maui comes off as just your average self-absorbed, washed-up hero type, but much like Moana, the film knows to give us a reason as to why he finds himself so amazing (through the song “You’re Welcome”), and we ultimately come to really like him. Dwayne Johnson gives Maui loads of charisma and charm that are all to infectious — with everything from his moving hand-drawn, animated tattoos to his awesome array of shape-shifting powers. The chemistry between him and Moana works well, opening many opportunities for well-executed comedy and drama. While there’s not much to say about the other characters, there really doesn’t need to be, because the movie knows its main focus should be on our main protagonists and the journey they go through rather than trying to fit in a bunch of stereotypes.
The music is another extraordinary highlight. Not only is the score by Mark Mancina beautiful to listen to, the collection of songs are wonderful. All of the songs fantastically help give the movie its much-needed atmosphere and tell the story magnificently. My favorite songs were “How Far I’ll Go” (which is bound to be the next “Let It Go” from “Frozen”),”We Know The Way” and “You’re Welcome.” Not only do these songs help to flesh out the characters and tell the story, they’re all catchy, fun to listen to, and varied in their own ways while still keeping the overall island theme. If this collection of songs helps prove anything, it’s that Disney’s talent of providing exceptional soundtracks won’t stop any time soon.
The errors with this film are all minor. Despite being new and refreshing in its execution, the general plot may come off as a bit more cliché, and there are moments when the story falls back on some of typical animated movie clichés, such as the two characters who don’t like each other at the beginning but are forced to go on an adventure together and end up liking each other by the end. When the clichés pop up, they don’t integrate as well with the story and feel forced, which is a bit disappointing. Also, even though all the songs are rather exceptional, the song “Shining” feels a bit of place in its style, having a more R&B sound that lacks any real atmosphere. The song on its own works but clashes with the obvious island theme prevalent in the others.
Flaws aside, “Moana” successfully proves itself in a rather competitive year for animation. With its grand-scaled and atmospheric story, three-dimensional and likable characters, jaw-dropping animation and delightful soundtrack, this refreshing animated feature is a must-watch and easily one of 2016’s best.
Mikael, 18, is a freshman at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he plans to major in animation. Mikael has made a host of stop-motion and claymation short films, including his popular Donald Trump VS webseries and award-winning short “The Tree That Refused To Fall,” which can all be found on his YouTube channel, Cyclops Studios.