Every single time I write a review of a new Disney animated movie, I seem to write the same opening paragraph. It's a new Disney renaissance! They're making good movies again! They're on a roll! They're better than Pixar! I could certainly write the same thing once again for Moana, Disney's newest feature and the latest in a string of critically acclaimed hits for the studio. Yes, everything that has been said about Zootopia and Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph applies here once more. In fact, Moana might just be the best movie in the 2010s Disney resurgence yet. After the remarkable success of their last few movies, you would think that I would have higher expectations for a new Disney film. Even with Oscar buzz, critical raves, and a Rotten Tomatoes score at 98%, I was barely anticipating the film's release. In a season led by two major blockbusters (Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts) and an abundance of Oscar contenders (La La Land, Manchester by the Sea), the biggest animated film of the season got lost in the shuffle for me.
But as I have with almost all of the recent Disney animated films, I headed to the theater to check out Moana on opening day during its first screening. And I was simply blown away. Moana is as purely enjoyable as any of Disney's recent output, and even in a banner year for animation, this Polynesian adventure might just be my favorite animated film of the year. It's certainly Disney's best princess film since the early 90s, although this is a completely different kind of princess tale. Here is a Disney movie featuring a female protagonist with no love interest, something that has never happened in the company's storied animated history. Moana is just a strong, fierce heroine, a girl who uses her brains and her strength to save her island. It's a necessary and vital story of female empowerment, and the fact that the film is so entertaining only improves matters. With excellent songs from Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, glorious, colorful visuals, a dynamite turn from Dwayne Johnson, and a great story that takes a joyous look at Polynesian culture, Moana is a brilliant delight.
In the opening moments of Moana, we're told the story of Te Fiti, the goddess of the island. She was the force that united the islands, maintaining a sense of peace and harmony. But one day, her heart was stolen by Maui (Dwayne Johnson), the powerful demigod who is the idol of humanity. During a battle, the heart was lost, and the forces that Te Fiti kept at bay were unleashed on the world. The islands are slowly dying, and unless the heart of the ocean is returned, that will continue to happen. Chief Tui (Temeura Morrison) knows this, but with the looming threats in the depths of the sea, he doesn't want anyone to make the trek. Especially not Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), his adventurous and skillful daughter. Tui wants Moana to prepare to be the future queen of the island, but all she wants to do is travel the world and see the ocean.
Oh, and there's one other thing- the ocean has gifted Moana with special powers. Not only does she have a burning desire to travel beyond the confines of her island, she's also the chosen one in a way. The ocean gifted her the heart, and she's destined to find Maui and restore the power of Te Fiti. With a little bit of help from her wise grandmother (Rachel House), Moana learns the true story of her people's past and goes on an adventure of her own. Along with Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), her bone-headed chicken companion, Moana ventures to find Maui, a bombastic figure who may have a bit more under the surface than you might think. Together, they'll have to combine their smarts and strength to save the day, and restore the glorious path of the islands.
I saw Moana over two weeks ago, and I've been struggling to come up with much to say about it, simply because I just really had a blast. This movie is so much fun, and if it we hadn't seen a couple of musical masterworks from Damien Chazelle and John Carney, Moana may have ended up as the best cinematic experience of the year. It's pure visual eye candy, a lush, immaculately designed film that has some of the most dynamic animation I've seen. It's a movie that feels vibrantly alive at every moment, pulsating with the island spirit and moving like the waves of the oceans. Every color is vivid and bright, every action scene is beautifully staged, and every moment feels perfectly realized. After dominating the world of hand-drawn animation, it's clear that directors Ron Clements and John Musker have tapped into the potential of CGI animation, and have utilized it to put their unique, stunning vision to life on the big screen.
As jaw-dropping as the visuals are, Moana's charm comes from more than just the expert work done by some of Disney's most talented animators. Clements and Musker had a really great story on their hands here, and it translates so well to the big screen. Of all the criticisms of Moana, I've been most baffled by those who have said that the story is weak and doesn't generate much interest. I couldn't disagree more. The story here may be simple, but that word is not synonymous with weak. Moana hooks you from the first scene with its charming, epic mythology, and keeps you enticed with its blend of excellent character moments, large-scale music numbers, and stunning action scenes. Moana is a traditional adventure narrative, a hero's journey story that is refreshingly free of fluff or filler. The pacing is truly incredible, and each profound emotional moment is balanced with an action beat that is gleefully entertaining. This movie is a blast from start to finish and it doesn't let up.
Moana is a perfect heroine for this story, and Auli'i Cravalho brings her to life in a great way. She's strong-willed, determined, beautiful, and endlessly likable- pretty much perfect for Disney's first truly independent female lead. Cravalho, a newcomer, is instrumental in creating the personality of Moana, and her vocals are astounding. "How Far I'll Go" is one of the standout numbers of the film, and Cravalho pours her heart and soul into it, turning a traditional Disney ballad into a true show-stopper. She's balanced by the always-terrific Dwayne Johnson, who creates one of the best characters of the year with Maui. Johnson is a larger-than-life personality, which makes him the perfect fit for the herculean demigod. But as with all of Johnson's characters, there's a tenderness underneath the rough exterior, which comes out during some of the film's most vulnerable moments. Oh- and he can sing! "You're Welcome" is maybe the most entertaining number of the movie, a brilliant burst of musical exuberance.
Beyond those two centerpiece numbers, Moana is filled with great scenes and unforgettable musical moments. "We Know the Way," which is sung by Lin Manuel Miranda himself, is a booming, beautifully staged piece, and the reprise at the end of the film is nothing short of spectacular. In addition, Jemaine Clement almost steals the show as Tamatoa, a giant crab who feels like a funnier riff on Smaug from the Hobbit films. "Shiny" is Clement's main musical showcase, and it's as hilarious and goofy as anything in the movie. The whole sequence with Tamatoa is terrific, and it's one of the most important parts of the quest that Moana and Maui embark on. However, that dynamite scene is upstaged by an action beat involving an army of coconut monsters. It's a clear homage to George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, and I jumped up and down with nerdy excitement in my seat when I saw what Clements and Musker had done. It's such a breathtaking moment in a movie filled with them. I can't say enough good things about this film.
When Moana comes to a close, the title slams onto the screen with a simple power that reflects the movie that you just witnessed. Make no mistake about it- this is a new Disney classic, and quite possibly the best animated film they've made since the 1990s. I loved every second of this thrilling, enchanting movie, and it's one of those rare instances where I can't imagine people not enjoying it. Moana has it all, and its four-quadrant appeal will make it one of the biggest hits of the holiday season. Memorable music, fantastic story, dazzling animation, great action scenes- what more can you ask for from a Disney movie? Moana is just plain awesome.
THE FINAL GRADE: A (9.5/10)
Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo