Disney has long drawn from folklore for inspiration for its animated features, from European fairy tales to Inuit tales by way of Shakespeare. With MOANA, the 56th animated movie from Walt Disney Animation Studios, directors John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) delve into Polynesian myth for a familiar yet beautiful showcase of animation and song.
Thematically, Musker and Clements revisit some of the threads they explored in The Little Mermaid by way of Emperor’s New Groove. The titular Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), like many Disney leads before her, yearns of seeing the bigger world beyond her small island, but her father (Temuera Morrison) forbids it. When the ocean calls her to return island goddess Te Fiti’s stolen heart, Moana must track down demigod Maui (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) and convince him to help her.
MOANA isn’t breaking any new ground with its narrative, but as Disney’s first Polynesian “princess,” she is pushing the idea of what that model can accomplish. “You’re wearing a dress and you have an animal sidekick. You’re a princess,” Maui argues. Moana corrects Maui by pointing out that she is not a princess, but rather the daughter of the chief. Here writer Jared Bush (Zootopia) is making a firm statement that Disney’s heroines don’t have to be just one thing or the other.
As the songwriter for Broadway smash Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s songs (with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina are sure to sell a mint. “How Far I’ll Go” may not be the next “Let It Go” but it’s still catchy as hell, and a powerful ballad for the lead that parents of small children will know off by heart soon enough. The inventive hybrid animation that surrounds Johnson’s “You’re Welcome” is a triumph in clever storybording and song, and Jermaine Clement’s “Shiny” (sung by a giant jewel-encrusted crab) may have stepped straight out of one of the Bowie parodies in Flight of the Conchords.
Clements and Musker’s first foray into CGI is top-notch, with the water effects in particular one of biggest drawcards of the picture. The character animation is fun, with the lead animator on Maui capturing Johnson’s eyebrow raise, and dancing pectorals. His tattoo animation is like a short film by itself.
MOANA may not be destined to surpass the unexpected success of Frozen, or have the sheer sophistication of Zootopia‘s multi-textual storyline, but it’s a classic tale that uses Disney’s top talents. It may not change your life, but it will make it a little brighter.