After making Marvel magic with Civil War, shattering expectations with The Jungle Book, delivering an animated classic with Zootropolis and awaiting a Star Wars shaped send off to 2016, this really has been a dream year for Disney. Already reaching $5 Billion at record speed - and that is before Rogue One - the house of mouse truly is still the king of the castle. So with this said, and with a streak of consistently exceptional movies, does the 56th film in the Walt Disney Animation Studios output continue this winning trend of barnstorming pictures? Yes, it absolutely does.
This Polynesian adventure sees young girl Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), aspire to go out across the oceans from an early age, despite the warnings of those in her tribe (her beloved grandmother (Rachel House) aside) but one day, as a toddler, the ocean chose Moana for a very special quest, that would see her deliver a relic to an island goddess, with the help of a Demigod called Maui (Dwayne Johnson). Now, years later, Moana is called back to that quest, which will see her strength and her heart well and truly tested. Moana is another enjoyable adventure that feels like a seaboard Pocahontas blended with Hercules (especially in how the film uses real mythology - in this case Polynesian - and disneyfies it) and The Emperor’s New Groove, with moments of spellbinding sea faring splendour akin to Ang Lee’s The Life Of Pi.
The story is a thoroughly enjoyable one that may lack the emotive grasp of Disney’s best work (not to say it is absent of poignancy) but has a very spiritual feeling to it, offering a sweeping journey of destiny, that asks you to follow your soul's direction. The film is preceded by a very enjoyable short film, Inner Workings, which centres on the battle between head or heart and living life to the full, and in many ways that ethos does apply here, as the film is about a girl leaving her comfort zone to follow who she really is inside. From the opening moments of the film, the cultural setting is engrained in this narrative and Moana really is a brilliant journey to be taken on. Yes, in many ways it is traditional Disney (even a gag is made about the token princess w/ animal sidekick), with a (occasionally scene stealing) chicken sidekick and a “listen to your heart” core but this tradition meshes with a change of pace setting and themes of environmentalism (the sea is an actual character) and gender liberation (Moana is set to be the next leader of her tribe and is not so much interested in finding a partner as she is the world).
There is a lack of a real villain (instead the antagonist of this film is really nature thrown out of balance by a well meaning individual) aside from Jemaine Clement’s colossal gold-loving crab Tamatoa, who does feel like he scurried in from the world of The Little Mermaid (something not unnoticed by the filmmakers - refer to post-credits scene). However it is all a joyous burst of fun that boasts imagination in the set pieces, even as the story rushes a few elements (Maui’s backstory) and makes a convenience out of others (the sea is Moana’s friend but only helps at certain points). Kids will adore certain aspects like the aforementioned battle with the singing self-centred crustacean, while adults too will also be swept away by the visuals, which really are the film’s greatest achievement. The animation is among the best ever created by the studio and certain sequences absolutely floor you with their beauty, colour and majestic power. From the sand grains to the anthropomorphic sea (that recalls The Magic Carpet in Aladdin), this is animation as masterful as it is wonderful. The songs are fantastic, with Cravalho surely destined to gain Oscar attention with “How Far I’ll Go” and Dwayne “ The Rock” Johnson showcasing his range, with a great song called “You’re Welcome”. Then there is the soulful scoring by Mark Mancina, which only adds to the proud cultural identity of this film, accomplished through thorough research and passion.
Moana is a gorgeous offering by Disney that uses the magnificence of our planet to tell a simple but effective girl meets demigod sea-set story. And to that point Moana herself is a brimming core to the film and well supported by the initially full of himself but ultimately lovable lug Maui. Not to mention some fine supporting characters like Gramma Tala and Heihei (Alan Tudyk) - the intellectually challenged Rooster that accompanies our heroes on their journey. The voice work is enthused with Cravalho and Johnson striking up a brilliant chemistry and the characters being well placed in this fast moving and fun adventure. This movie may not manage the depth or shocks of other Disney classics, the end result is never in question, but it brings so many inspired ideas to enjoy along the way, including almost Mad Max-like mad coconut pirates the Kakamora, a piglet best friend and a character with a living tattoo as his BFF, as well as some sly Disney and pop culture references.
Moana is unspeakably lovely to look at and very entertaining to watch, Disney continue to be at the top of their game.
MOANA / CERT: PG / DIRECTORS: RON CLEMENTS, JOHN MUSKER / SCREENPLAY: JARED BUSH / STARRING: AULI’I CRAVALHO, DWAYNE JOHNSON, RACHEL HOUSE, TEMUERA MORRISON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 8/10