Moana (2016) by Ron Clements and John Musker
Review by John McAmis
The Kings of Disney Princess Musicals are back at it with Disney’s newest release. John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules) make their first foray into the computer animated realm, creating a beautiful story set in the waters of the South Pacific. This film comes as the latest installment of what I’ve been calling Disney’s Third Wave. In the 1940s-1960s, there was the Golden Age of Disney. In the 1990s, viewers saw a resurgence of story and animation with the Renaissance. Now we have a new movement for the most famous of animation studios. The Third Wave (which fits nicely with our oceanic theme), definitively began in 2006 when Disney acquired Pixar Animation Studios. Pixar is known for story, sentimentality, art, and technological innovations, aspects of animation that Disney seemed to have neglected after the Renaissance. John Lasseter was appointed Chief Creative Officer for both studios, creating a cross-breeze effect between the animation giants. The first film to be released after the acquisition of Pixar was Tangled (2010), and so the Third Wave of Disney began. Viewers no doubt have seen an increased level of storytelling, artistry, and progressive themes from the Mouse House since Tangled with Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Frozen (2013), and Zootopia (2016). You can thank Pixar for these films, and you can also thank past Disney films for Moana.
This new Disney Princess adventure isn’t even a Disney Princess adventure. Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) herself claims to simply be “the daughter of the chief,” no royalty, no castle, no evil parents who protect and coddle their baby. Moana, however, is expected to be the one to lead her island and its inhabitants after her father passes on. Even though we are not given a royal treatment with Moana, there is still a theme of responsibility and authority given to her. The same story, but different. This is a common thing for our newest Disney film. Moana doesn’t outright defy her father or throw a fit or flip tables, she simply dreams of sailing beyond the reef and feels this inherent calling from the sea. Her father, wanting to keep Moana on the island with her people and the family, prohibits his daughter from sailing and in so doing, concretes her to the island. But if you believe Moana will stay, then you’ve never seen a Disney feature. Of course she goes! But it’s moving and touching and original because Musker and Clements know character and story and what drives motivation. Remember, their film credits are all Renaissance films. Same story, but with slight differences.
Moana has her adventure, discovering herself along the way and getting to know her world, her people’s mythology, and her ancestral legacy. Moana, significantly, does not have a love interest in the film. This is her story, her quest. She has her trusty sidekick of HeiHei (an adorably stupid chicken), Maui the demigod (an incredible performance by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), and the Ocean (a newly made friend and guardian of hers). Themes of family, independence, friendship, and self-discovery are ripe in Moana. These are Disney themes, but again, they seem new this time around. Fresh. Exciting. Surprising. Moana herself is the standard Disney heroine with big eyes and beautiful hair, but she has a more athletic build and a cluelessness about the world that brings her real danger and conflict.
It would be a sin to gloss over the songs of Moana, for they are some of the best Disney songs of recent years. Written primarily by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), there’s a very broadway quality to the film’s tunes. They have complicated key and time changes, sometimes the rhymes are slanted and the singers have to really stretch their pipes to succeed. And they succeed, let me tell you. Even The Rock’s song is a gem and stands as one of the film’s best numbers. Auli’i Cravalho’s main song “How Far I’ll Go” is a new standard for titular characters’ introduction numbers. It’s touchingly performed by the fifteen-year-old actress and sets the tone and conflict for the feature. New Zealand Superstar Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Concords) also gets a nice tune “Shiny” with his character of Tamatoa. The songs really pay homage and respect the musical style of the South Pacific islands, adding a sincere and authentic layer to Moana’s tale.
With regard to the accuracy and authenticity of the film’s depiction of the South Pacific islands, I can only speak about what I have seen in other reviews and what the film’s own credits reveal. Cravalho said she was thoroughly impressed with how the team at Disney incorporated her culture’s mythology into the picture. Moreover, the film credits prominent New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows) as a consultant, while also crediting historians and cultural scholars who study the South Pacific. The film truly does seem to respect and give life to this isolated region of the world. This thoroughness of research and desire for accuracy is also a Third Wave characteristic borrowed from Pixar. It’s a pleasure when Disney has a successful, thoughtful, enjoyable film released. Disney is the most famous name within the film industry. Everyone has a seen a Disney film sometime or other in their lifetime. When they nail a feature film, both cinephiles and casual movie watchers can discuss it and engage. Disney’s movies have always been for everyone, for the masses. With the Third Wave making its crest, Disney is returning to its roots of quality stories, outstanding animation, touching and catchy songs, and films that are meant to be enjoyed by anyone and everyone in the theatre. Moana is an excellent addition to the studio’s filmography. A familiar addition, sure, but one with a different tone and heroine.