"Legend tells of a hero who will journey to find the demi-god Maui, and together they will save us all."
With the recent outpouring of critically acclaimed projects, one has to wonder if we are currently experiencing the next Disney Renaissance, starting with 2009’s ‘Tangled’ in terms of quality but peaking in terms of commercial success with the gargantuan hit that was ‘Frozen’. Not only has the quality been excellent, but the variety of their work and its ability to subvert classic Disney tropes has been unparalleled, from ‘Big Hero 6’ to ‘Zootopia’ and now we see a return to the classic princess story with ‘Moana’.
Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is the strong willed daughter of Chief Tui Waialiki and the next leader of the Polynesian tribe. When a blight strikes her island, Moana is chosen by the ocean to reunite a mystical relic with a goddess, and set out to find Maui (Dwayne Johnson), an ancient demigod who may hold the key to saving her people.
On the surface ‘Moana’ would appear to be a much more conventional take on the princess genre than we have seen from Disney in many years. It establishes traditional archetypes, themes and stylistic choices that was have seen in many of their animated classics before. However a closer inspection into ‘Moana’ reveals that the film not only subverts some of these archetypes in a way to make the movie as a whole feel more fresh and original, but also make it feel all the more relevant in today’s social climate.
The same could be said of ‘Zootopia’ which was released earlier this year and the inevitable question that arises is, which is better? In all honesty they are two vastly different films, not just in their subject matter but also from their thematic undertones. Whereas ‘Zootopia’ was looking at the big picture with its social commentary, ‘Moana’ is much more of a character study that revolves around its titular character. Though there is a rich cast of supporting characters the focus is very much on Moana finding herself and discovering her own identity.
What helps bring that character study to life is the fact that Moana is voiced by the supremely talented Auli'i Cravalho, whose vocal performance is wonderful to behold. She injects a sense of strong willed determination into the character that makes her journey and drive fit into her characterisation, but is also never above letting the vulnerabilities of the character shine through in order to generate sympathy from the viewer. There’s an impressive amount of range within the performance, and the fact that she displays infectious energy and great comic timing for the more humorous scenes only makes it more impressive.
Cravalho’s greatest achievement though, may be the fact that she is able to hold her own against Dwayne Johnson as Maui. A larger than life figure in every sense of the phrase, Johnson is perfect for the role. In addition to being one of the most charismatic people on the planet (an aspect he brings to the role in all its glory) Johnson is able to display some more intimate and dramatic moments as the film delves into the characters back story. Far from being a one dimensional side character Maui transforms into a fully fleshed out individual, not to the extent that he engulfs the film as he easily could have, but to a point where he is as interesting as he is entertaining.
While the plot is a straightforward and moderately conventional one (especially by Disney standards when you consider their other bodies of work) the focus is tight enough to ensure that it is still interesting and intriguing. The songs, co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, are all excellently integrated into the story as well. While a common weakness of musicals is blasting out songs for the sake of it, the music of ‘Moana’ is always there to inform the characters, provide exposition or advance the narrative. There is always a purpose to it.
It should go without saying that the animation would be astonishing, but I’m going to say it anyway because the animators of ‘Moana’ really have out done themselves here. Anyone who knows the faintest thing about animation knows that one of the biggest challenges is to animate a fluid, translucent mass, in most cases water. So the prospect of an animated film that takes place either on islands or a vast expansive ocean must have been a daunting one. But it is all executed perfectly, with all the vibrancy and variety one could want. The writers did not go easy on the animators either, by taking the characters to a number of varied set pieces from caves of luminous treasure to giant mortmain’s of lava but each one has a photorealistic feel to it while also being rendered appropriately, for lack of a better word, animated.
Beautifully animated and thoroughly entertaining on every level, ‘Moana’ is yet another delight from Disney animation.