by Alan Yudman
In case you haven’t noticed, Disney has a formula for its animated musicals. A young girl (usually some kind of princess) is tested, overcomes and winds up as a heroic inspiration. Don’t knock it. It works every time. The latest version is MOANA. The only difference here is the heroine isn’t thin and white. The other difference is Lin-Manuel Miranda. No other Disney feature has had his immense talent attached to it. That alone should make MOANA one of the best animated films of the year.
In this version of the princess story, Moana is the daughter of an island chief. My apologies, Moana is not a princess. A fact she points out every chance she gets. She is in line to take over and lead her people in their island paradise. One problem, paradise isn’t what it used to be. Plants are dying, coconuts are rotten, there are no fish in the lagoon. If something doesn’t change the society will die. Moana has always felt the pull of the water, to explore beyond the safety of the reef that protects the island. Her father forbids it, but being the Disney rebel she knows that is her calling. When she discovers her ancestors were sea-going explorers her mission is clear. She must find the mythic demigod Maui, return their goddesses jewel which will set the world right. Maui has other ideas. He wants to steal her boat (leaving her stranded), retrieve his magical fishhook and exact revenge on the devil who left him stranded. Moana is too strong and willful to let that happen. The adventure of Moana and Maui crosses oceans and stereotypes. All of it featuring songs that are nearly as catchy and wonderful as anything Miranda wrote for Hamilton. He has the the help of Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. Foa’i brings language and traditional island authenticity to the songs. Mancina’s score is soaring and beautiful.
The voice acting is unbelievably wonderful. Dwayne Johnson voices Maui and shows an outsized comedic personality I wish he showed more of in CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE. And the Rock can also sing, well sort of. Think Richard Burton in Camelot, but slightly better. Auli’i Cravalho voices Moana and the newcomer is absolutely fabulous. Marvelous acting and wonderful voice.
The animation is also exceptional. I’ve read that animating water is always problematic. Water plays such an important role in this film that they had to get it right. They do. And seeing it 3D confirms the technological achievement.
MOANA is a fabulous film for kids of all ages. Nothing too scary or intense and the music…. wow. As good as the story and acting are, Miranda’s undeniable songwriting talent elevate this to the among the best of the Disney animated musicals.