‘Moana’ (2016) | Movie Review

Disney animation has had its ups and downs. First, there was the burst of creativity at its beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio, and others, which then morphed into mildly enjoyable animated revues like Melody Time. They started to hit again in the 1950s, with return to classic tales like Cinderella and Peter Pan, but by the mid-1970s, their storytelling tropes became a bit stale, each one losing more personality than the last. Then their was the famous Disney renaissance beginning with The Little Mermaid, that catapulted them back to the top, only to lose steam harder than ever before in the early to mid 2000s, with such stinkers like Home on the Range and Chicken Little. Lately, though, Disney animation has been on a major upswing, taking their classic tropes and giving them a burst of modern life, where we get great films like Frozen and Zootopia.

One major reason for this is their re-embrace of the musical. Their came a point, around Mulan, where music in a Disney film no longer was an integral part to the construction of their features. They would hire someone to write a couple of pop numbers so they could sell a soundtrack that wasn’t simply orchestral score. By Tarzan, they just Phil Collins record his own songs and did not even have the characters in the film perform them. Crafting a musical this way is a fool’s errand. Songs need purpose, be it furthering action or developing character (or ideally both). So with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, Disney really turned itself around when it comes to the animated musical, which they perfected in the late 80s/early 90s, and brought on people, such as their old pal Alan Menken or Robert and Kristin Lopez, to not just write some ditties, but a real musical score.

Which brings us to Moana. With this, Disney was not messing around when bringing on composers. Firstly, we have Disney veteran Mark Mancina, who goes back to arranging the score for The Lion King. He is well-versed in the Disney feeling. Then we have Opetaia Foa’i, of the band Te Vaka, to filter everything into an authentic Pacific sound to compliment the film’s setting. And finally, we have Broadway darling (and, frankly, world conquering) Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose lyrical depth and wit is arguably the best of his generation, with a uniquely modern sound. They have a perfect mixture of styles to craft this score, and it is the primary reason Moana soars as high as it does.

The titular Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is next in line to be chief of her village on the island of Motunui. Unfortunately, their island is dying. Crops won’t grow, and there are no more fish in the reef. According to legend, the heart of the ocean was stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), causing this death. Moana, one day, is presented the heart by the ocean, and she decides to journey out to find Maui and return the heart where it came from to save her island, even though no one has left Motunui since anyone can remember.

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Moana is a phenomenal character. Every move she makes comes from a proactive position, even if she knows at points she is not one-hundred percent capable of doing something. She always has the best intention at heart. This is not to say she is a pure but boring character. Far from it. She’s smart, snappy, determined, but also a smidge naive about what she’s getting herself into. Sometimes her boldness outweighs her ability. Her determination to help her home comes in direct opposition to Maui, who is all about himself. They make for a great pairing, and though they probably did not record together, Cravalho and Johnson’s chemistry is wonderful. That’s a hard thing to do if you aren’t playing against anyone, and if they did in fact record together, it makes perfect sense.

Back to the score, the composers know how to write so well for these performers. These songs are tailor made to fit their voices. Cravalho manages to mix sweetness and power equally, who nail high notes with warmth and not a piercing struggle. Johnson is not much of a singer, but thanks to Miranda’s hip-hop background, he is given a song that is a lot of patter. Johnson can Rex Harrison his way through a number, with the occasional surprising good tone. The rest of the cast is well adept to handle musical numbers, whether it’s Tony nominee Christopher Jackson or Flight of the Conchord’s Jemaine Clement.

My one issue with the movie is the comedic relief. Look, I get little kids find animals funny, but the chicken the stows away on Moana’s boat is incredibly irritating. It’s a stupid bird! Isn’t that funny?! No, not really. The rest of Moana is so majestic that every time it cuts to this chicken, I was ripped from the movie. Thankfully, we were spared a potential animal comedy duo with a pig, who stays on shore when she leaves. So, I can at least give the filmmakers credit there, but I wouldn’t have been sad in the slightest if they’d cut the chicken as well. There’s plenty of comedy that arises from Moana and Maui’s banter, as well as physical comedy from the ocean. That’s really my only complaint though.

Moana is among one of Disney’s best in a long time. It’s in serious competition with Frozen for me of the best of their new renaissance. For years, Pixar ran so fast that Disney was coughing up their dust. Lately, the House of Mouse has been dominating. I mean, they delivered two dynamite films in 2016 alone. As someone who loves the musical form, I am overjoyed Disney has decided to really take it seriously again. Kids growing up are so lucky they have a film like Moana to watch on repeat, like I did with Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I know has issues but has some of Disney’s best sequences ever). Me not being a kid won’t stop me from watching this one over and over.

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