If this past spring’s Zootopia saw Disney shake up its standard formula in service of what was more or less an unusually well-made crime procedural featuring cartoon animals, Moana sees the Mouse House working in a more traditional mold. And to the film’s credit, there are moments in which Moana feels just as fresh in different respects. Yet it’s a traditional kind of Disney movie, a whole-family crowd pleaser with a few earworms on its soundtrack and an endearing pair of mismatched leads on an impeccably animated adventure.
Even allowing for its recognizable traits, Moana is as much a treat to watch as any recent Disney outing. Despite ostensibly being a “Disney princess” film (more on that shortly), one of the film’s more immediate predecessors seems to be Hercules, in its mix of lighthearted conflict and real menace. It also recalls that film’s message about predetermined expectations, as the film begins with a phenomenally animated prologue explaining how the young Moana, the future chief of a Polynesian island, was summoned by the sea as an infant to return the Heart of Te Fiti (Mother Earth, essentially) to its rightful place, after it was stolen years earlier by Maui, a storied demigod.
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) eventually grows into the kind of Disney heroine who can’t accept the life that’s been decided upon for her. While she’s good at the kind of protective work she’ll have to do as a chief, she can’t help but be called back to the ocean, despite the fears of her father, the gruff Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). Her Gramma Tala (Rachel House), however, encourages Moana to mind her father, but also listen to that other voice inside, the one that accepts change when her village so easily chooses to remain set in its increasingly non-viable ways.
Moana eventually decides to set sail on her own, against her father’s wishes, when the fish begin to disappear from the waters near their beloved Motunui and a legendary, sootlike darkness begins to claim more and more of the island’s lands. After all, if she can find Maui and force him to return the Heart of Te Fiti, the world will go back to normal, right? Well, not if Maui (Dwayne Johnson) has anything to say on the matter. Moana finds the demigod on a secluded island, lacking both his all-powerful, god-given fish hook and any motivation to help Moana fix the island’s woes.
From there, you can guess much of the rest: Moana and Maui meet gruff, go on adventures, encounter singing villains, and learn about the virtues of leadership and forgiveness. Yet what’s most exciting about Moana isn’t that familiar story, although it tells it effectively and with an engaging charm. It’s the film’s remarkable visuals that situate it a cut above many of its peers. Though a substantial amount of the film is spent at sea, on or around its heroes’ modest sailboat, Moana manages a number of memorable setpieces. One thrilling action sequence sees the duo facing off against a battalion of small but vicious pirates clad in coconut armor, racing around their mothership alongside Moana. In another, an attempt to reclaim Maui’s hook pits them against the giant crab Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement, whose villain ballad “Shiny” is a highlight), and Tamatoa attempts to turn the tables by bathing himself in hideous fluorescent light; the resulting battle is unsettling by Disney’s standards.
Moana’s world is vividly realized; though it’s not the first Disney outing in recent years to push the difficult art of water animation forward, it’s nevertheless breathtaking to see how far it’s already come. (Credit is owed here to the film’s many helmers, with billed directors Ron Clements and John Musker and co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams all helping to realize what’s at once a narratively simple and visually complex feature.) In all of its general familiarity, Moana manages to dazzle with one setpiece after the next even in a marketplace now saturated with visually impressive, fast-paced family movies.
It also makes modest attempts to shake up the “unlikely hero triumphs over evil” trappings of its story, although Jared Bush’s screenplay (with seven other writers credited for the story as well) does occasionally rely on gags that seem a little beneath Disney’s standards. (Pee jokes and a barrage of sass are incongruous as Dreamworks touches in an otherwise charming movie.) In Moana, the film finds a heroine who only begins to realize her true power when she starts ignoring everybody’s plans for her, and in Maui, a hero who has to be dragged kicking and screaming into heroism. It’s hardly subversive, but Moana is nevertheless the sort of rebellious heroine that feels more honest for a lesson-minded family movie in the modern age. It’s an effective riff on the “princess” formula that manages to preserve that tradition’s more beloved aspects.
And as is custom, the soundtrack has a handful of gems that children will sing until the country comes to despise them. The early, scene-setting “Where You Are” sets a sarcastic tone, celebrating the island even as it passive-aggressively encourages the locals to never leave or wander or do anything they aren’t expressly told to do. “How Far I’ll Go” sees Cravalho doing fine work on her old-fashioned soaring ballad. As mentioned, “Shiny” is a highlight. And the surprise of the film might be the infectious “You’re Welcome,” performed by Johnson, who proves himself unexpectedly adept at stage-style patter, because apparently the onetime Rock really can do anything. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s arrangements (with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina) draw on a number of diverse sounds, but it’s a perfectly bouncing soundtrack for the bright, optimistic film it’s scoring.
By this point, you know if Moana is for you or not. But particularly in the current global climate, a film about how breaking with well-meaning but ineffectual traditions to truly make the world a better place is something we could all stand to enjoy. And hey, it has some really catchy songs along the way.