Disney Animation has always been a roller coaster of a company, rising to the peaks of imagination for a few years only to dip into the valleys of banality for a few more, then returning to the top once again before dropping and… you get the idea. Before the most recent uptick in creativity, the last peak era was between 1989 and 1995, when some of the greatest Disney films outside of the original run of films were released (including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King). Somewhere in the late-90s, though, Disney began to falter once again (yes, there were some decent films, but nothing on the scope of the previously listed behemoths), giving way to a much more creative endeavor known as Pixar, which stole every bit of Disney’s once dominant thunder, even as Disney distributed those very same Pixar films.
Lucky for us, Disney executives saw the writing on the wall and made one of the biggest, most important decisions they could have made at the time — they bought Pixar Animation outright in 2006 and gave creative control of both animation houses to Pixar founder John Lasseter. Since then, Disney animation studio has risen once again to become a powerhouse Uncle Walt would no doubt be proud of, generating a series of outstanding films, such as Bolt, Wreck-It-Ralph, Frozen, Tangled and their newest addition, Moana, a fun, high-spirited adventure that not only provides us a romantic story, it makes fun of itself with the glee of a company who’s first and only goal is to tell a great story while entertaining both kids and adults.
Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the kind, beautiful young daughter of a Polynesian island tribe’s Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). It is her duty to one day take over for her father as chief, but her mind is set more on exploring what’s beyond the reef, which Chief Tui has restricted anyone from doing — ever since he lost his friend to the dangers of the sea. Not only that, but there’s a local legend of a curse swarming the oceans, one started when the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of what essentially amounts to Mother Earth. And, because of Maui’s actions, a dangerous evil lurks, slowly devouring the world of its resources. When this curse reaches the shore of Moana’s island, infecting the coconuts and wiping out all the fish, the ocean bestows the heart to Moana, who defies her father’s wishes to seek out Muai and return the heart to its rightful place.
A lot of the promotion for Moana revolved around Maui, and it makes sense — with Johnson providing the voice work, Maui brings strength to the film in the form of emotional levity. He’s a charismatic narcissist who’s quick with a joke while hiding a deeply rooted fear of being left alone and forgotten. In contrast, Cravalho approaches her voice work with a sweet, nurturing lightness, able to convey passion and courage in even the simplest of ways.
Together, Cravalho and Johnson blend into a terrific team. The young wide-eyed idealist holds her own against the larger-than-life demigod by bearing just as much, if not more, strength than Maui could ever muster. His courage may lie in his wit, his brute force and his magical spear, but hers is held inside an unbreakable tenacity for doing what’s right for those she cares deeply toward. When the journey across the ocean steers into heavier emotional waters, and the sense of hopelessness fills the air, my heart broke for both characters, as the writers have provided each one with genuine, universal ideas — that moment when you believe all is lost and know that just one more act of courage will get you over the finish line, but to muster up the strength to push through becomes one of the hardest moments you’ll ever face. It’s a testament to how well both actors are able to draw you in to the point you no longer feel you’re watching an animated film.
I could go into detail about the animation, but like any Pixar or Disney animated film, it’s basically a given that the entire thing will look gorgeous and at times too lifelike for its own good. What I will focus on for a second are some of the unorthodox choices the writers made, such as giving the water a bit of sentience. Though the idea and reactions generated by the ocean spitting Moana back onto the raft whenever Maui tosses her overboard are fun, I’m not certain the writers defined the rules or justified its life-like qualities enough to warrant its abilities as a character. Then there’s the animal sidekick — a crazy-eyed, rail-thin rooster that doesn’t know the difference between bird seed and a rock. It’s an odd choice to have this unlucky creature join Moana on her trip because there’s also a baby pig back home that would normally have been the likely choice to travel along on the adventure. But then you see how the animators utilize the rooster and the choice becomes more understandable. It still felt odd, though, and the whole time I kept wondering what the pig was up to.
The music is also somewhat lifeless. Unlike The Lion King, Frozen or Beauty and the Beast, and several other Disney classics that would take too long to list, the songs in Moana don’t hold the same power as its predecessors. The music continues the tradition of utilizing a blend of fun and saccharine songs to help tell its story and develop character, but I didn’t feel any of the songs was all that memorable. There’s no breakout hit like Let It Go or Circle of Life, one that everyone will know because it’s catchy, powerful theme gives heart and essence to everything at that moment — one you can feel in the marrow of your bones. The flagship song, “How Far I’ll Go,” comes close with its inspirational strength (and I’m sure it’ll grow on me the more I listen to it), but it’s not a ballad that knocks your socks off the way an instant classic might. And without a crop of stunning breakout songs to balance out the power of the characters themselves, the film feels more lackluster than it should. That aside, Disney Animation and John Lasseter have continued their current reign of box office dominance, leading the way for a bright and colorful future of anticipation.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Jackie and Siren. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.