Moana
★★★☆☆

With Moana, Walt Disney Animation Studios continues to expand its palette both in terms of visual grandeur and gender roles. The title character Moana Waialiki is the daughter of a chief of a small Polynesian island—there’s a brief but amusing debate as to whether or not she’s technically a Disney Princess (she is). When the mysterious and playful sea chooses Moana to undertake a quest to retrieve the stolen heart of an island goddess, she must disobey her father and chart her own course.  This hero’s journey entails leaving her utopic tropical home and crossing the ocean to find the demigod Maui who took the heart long ago. Moana and Maui then team up to defeat a lava demon.  This voyage, as well as the Polynesian culture, provides a unique maritime quality that’s as fresh and welcome as the absence of a handsome prince. The total lack of any romantic interest for Moana makes this a full-on action/adventure movie while still possessing all the aspects of the Disney fairytale boilerplate that audiences love: the beautiful heroine, the “I Want” song, the funny animal friends, the stand-out production numbers, the maturation story set in motion by an existential crisis.

Directors John Musker and Ron Clements and the Disney animation team surpass themselves with this picture. The colors are unexpectedly brighter and bolder than anything we’ve seen in the CGI era, and the 3D rendering of the characters surpasses the achievements of Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph. An image of Moana shaking sand out of her wet hair is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and the way Maui’s body tattoos come to life (via hand drawn 2D animation) and become his silent Jimminy-Cricket-like conscience is inspired.  Lead vocal actors Auli'i Cravalho as Moana and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Maui bring a sweet quality to their performances. Maui the demigod could easily have come off as a retread of Robin Williams’ Genie from the 1992 film Aladdin, which was also helmed by Musker and Clements. But Johnson makes Maui his own creation and avoids stealing the movie from its protagonist (as Williams did). Moana—unquestionably the most proactive animated heroine this studio has yet created—is the star of this show. It’s refreshing when the most memorable character in one of these princess stories is the princess herself. 

Some catchy songs by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Polynesian singer/composer Opetaia Foa’i thread the needle well in terms of giving audiences what they expect from this genre while remaining somewhat authentic to the South Pacific setting. Accompanied by Mark Mancina’s score, the music in Moana will get your toes tappin’ but there’s nothing destined to become a classic like “Let It Go.”  The big Bowie-esque glam-rock number “Shiny,” performed by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement as a bling-obsessed giant crab, is a major let down. Like everything about the giant crab sequence, the song feels lazy and generic.

The biggest problem with Moana is the same issue that undercuts most contemporary American animated films, the breakneck pace. These movies unfold at such a rapid speed that we rarely get to luxuriate in the wonderful environments they create. Moana’s first act contains all the necessary exposition, and even a few fresh twists not seen in previous incarnations of the typical Disney/Pixar hero’s journey set-up—the presence of the wise yet crazy grandmother character for example—but we never get to spend uninterrupted time in the world of the protagonist. We don’t get a full enough experience of the place and culture she leaves behind and thus we don’t care as much as we should about whether or not she saves it.  These movies are always released in theaters accompanied by an animated short. I’m fully in support of the resurgence of this tradition, but sometimes—especially in the case of the forgettable cartoon that precedes Moana—I wish those extra 10 minutes could have been re-apportioned into the main feature. Moana, the character and the film, deserves a longer running time.

Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Produced by Osnat Shurer

Screenplay by Jared Bush
Story by Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, and Don Hall

With: the voices of Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk, and Oscar Kightley

Editing: Jeff Draheim
Music: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina, and Opetaia Foa'i

Runtime: 107 min
Release Date: 23 November 2016
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color