As the very best animated Disney films often do, Moana marries mythology and musical to depict a princess struggling to find her place. However, Moana blasts beyond this tried-and-true method by introducing a transformative detail: Moana is more concerned with following her own values than she is on cozying up to a love interest and ruling as a princess. The film sports wonderful songs that are used in crucial bits of storytelling, the voice-acting is incredibly strong, and the plot features some interesting beats and develops a potent theme. There are interesting tweaks to the humor and animation styles as well, which keeps the film looking and feeling fresh throughout. Moana herself practically overflows with heroism, and she is perhaps the most complete and realistic Disney princess to date.
The film opens with a sort of cold-open that provides the mythological basis for the resulting plot (think Hercules). In this case, it is a Polynesian tale about the island goddess Te Fiti, who rose the islands from a vast ocean. However, when the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole her magical heart, the Te Fiti stopped creating new islands, and the ones she made in the past began to decay. As a young child, the daughter of the chief Moana (Auli’I Cravalho) is enraptured by this story, and it is quickly established that she is drawn to the ocean, against her father’s wishes. As she grows older and begins to accept her place as leader, she realizes some crucial truths about the history of her people, the reasons why her father forbids travel beyond the reef, and the only true remedy for her people’s troubles. She answers the call to action, and sets off on an adventure to find the demigod Maui and take him to restore Te Fiti’s heart so that the ocean can flourish once again.
This plot is stretched over the structure of a musical, and features some great songs. With music written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, the score does a fantastic job of providing essential characterization and exposition. The plot turn which ends the first act and essentially launches Moana’s adventure is particularly rousing, and sports some of the best visual and musical storytelling in recent memory. Of course, the usual beats are all hit. We open with an expository song that provides the context of Moana’s home island and her presumed place in that world. We get a sense for Moana’s wanderlust and wayfaring in a brilliant show-stopper that enjoys reprisals at key thematic moments. And, just to cut the seriousness a bit, there are some goofier numbers as well. As previously mentioned, Moana don’t need no man, so there is nary a romance number in the score, a refreshing and overdue alteration to the Disney formula. Do not be surprised if you find one or more of these songs up for a “Best Original Song” Oscar, with “How Far I’ll Go” the perennial favorite at this point.
The voice acting and singing in Moana is perfect, as we’ve come to expect from Disney. This attribute is often under-appreciated in the world of animation, as most films are content casting famous voices over actual voice-acting talent. In some cases, like The Secret Life of Pets, it is a sign of laziness that fits well with the quality of the overall film. But, in a film like Kubo and the Two Strings, poor voice acting can actually severely damage the film. It is remarkable that Disney is able to find the perfect balance of these two problems: they can cast well-known voices and elicit capable performances (and sometimes even extraordinary ones). That Disney rarely fails in this endeavor is noteworthy, and they’ve done well again here by casting Dwayne Johnson as Maui. Though eminently recognizable and with few voice acting credits to his name, Johnson performs ably here and does not distract from the scene-stealing prowess of newcomer Auli’I Cravalho.
One aspect of a Disney film that is never under-appreciated is the gorgeous animation, and Moana may be on an entirely different level. The animation style is almost overwhelming in its beauty. It is a vivid and flowing CGI style that fits perfectly with the restlessness and movement of the ocean, but there are other more subtle elements that catch the eye, too. For example, one trick that the film uses is to inject wildly different animation styles into certain sequences. The introduction of Maui features some 2D hand-drawn animation elements that are totally different from the CG animation. This makes Moana more intriguing visually than something like Zootopia or Frozen, which are both technically infallible but rather uniform. Moana seems to like playing around with its own animation – a beautiful stylistic ode to the eponymous heroines’ own exploration.
Though ostensibly about exploration, Moana is a more nuanced film than one would expect. In the beginning, Moana doesn’t feel compelled to abandon her desire to explore the ocean out of a resigned sense of duty. Instead, her decision is cased in a more subtle feeling that she wants to be strong for her people, and that she will be capable of the challenge. There is a particularly poignant symbol in the film that expresses this idea: her father shows Moana a tall stack of flat rocks at the peak of Motunui, her island. As her father explains, since the island was settled, each chief added a rock to the stack. As a result of principled and strong leadership, the island grows taller each generation. Soon, Moana will get to grow the island herself.
But, something is rotten in the state of Motunui. A blight falls over the coconuts, the fish populations are thinning, and the lush paradise begins to decay. With the help of her grandmother, Moana learns a secret: her ancestors were wayfinders, exploring the ocean for new islands to settle but always keeping their own home island in their heart and returning later. Generations ago, when sailors stopped returning from these voyages, the large ocean ships were retired and hidden, to prevent anyone else from venturing into the open ocean and the limitlessness and danger it represents. Thus Moana’s attraction to the ocean and exploration is not in conflict with her desire to rule and help her people. In a magnificent marriage of plot and theme, they are one-and-the-same.
Of course, this being Disney, the mythological cold open is actually true, so Moana tracks down Maui and the two seek to restore Te Fiti’s heart to her. Along the way there are palpable hardships for both Moana and Maui, and the two share a fresh dynamic that is absent in most Disney films which usually resort to meet-cutes and romance. Moana has none of this. She wants to restore the heart of Te Fiti to return the natural way of things and release her people from their self-imposed bondage. Through her ingenuity, courage, and understanding, she travels to the ends of the ocean in service of this quest, and it is an incredibly rousing and entertaining ride.
Moana does something truly great, perhaps more so than any other hero in the history of Disney. She is challenged by monsters and gods in her restoration of the natural state of things. Then, by following her true desires, she recognizes something greater than even this success. Returning triumphant, Moana teaches her people that the sea belongs to them again. Here the visual metaphor of the stone stack pays off in a twist of brilliance. Rather than placing a stationary stone atop the tower and cementing her peoples’ stagnant position on the island, Moana places a conch shell. Instead of an existence of “happily ever after” with her sweet prince and castle, Moana heroically corrects the rotten state of her island and then by extension allays the lethargic, self-imposed caging of her people’s hearts. She has done more than restore paradise – she has reminded them that they are destined to find their own.