by PJ Yerman
I have a riddle for you. What’s big, expensive and making better movies than Pixar? Nope, it’s not that company that can only produce feature-length toy commercials for Minions; it might just be Disney Animation Studios.
Moana, directed by animation veterans Ron Clements & John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid), tells the story of a young Polynesian girl, Moana (new-comer Auli’i Cravalho), who longs to escape the comfort of her island paradise and explore what lies beyond its ocean reef. When she’s forced to go on an adventure to save her island from an ancient curse, she enlists the help of Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), demigod of the wind and sea, to restore tranquility to her home and her people. Mix in some heart, a pet rooster and a few songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of Broadway’s Hamilton: An American Musical, for those living under a rock) and you have yourself one of the best animated movies of the year.
This movie is absolutely delightful and draws some serious comparisons to the animated Disney films of the ’90s, an era when the studio was releasing masterworks that were infectious in their music, characters, animation quality, and storytelling power. It is truly refreshing to see those classic attributes in a setting never before seen in the medium: Ancient Polynesia. Who knew that the spirituality and traditions of the Polynesian people would be such a unique and bountiful backdrop to set a story of this epic scale in? The ingredients are all there: a tattooed, shapeshifting demigod who singlehandedly creates inhabitable utopian islands and can harness his powers with a giant fish hook, a deep history of nautical exploration shown through seafaring, a mystical landmass-destroying amulet, and a sentient ocean. If that doesn’t write itself, I don’t know what does.
And if that’s not enough, why not include some bound-to-be-classic, Frozen-level stuck-in-your-head songs? I saw this movie over a week ago and at least three of the tracks are still stuck in my head. I’ve come this close to bursting into song in front of complete strangers. In all seriousness, there is one song performed by Cravalho that, if Moana does as well critically and financially as it deserves to, should transcend the “Let It Go” phenomenon. It’s that good. This film only further solidifies the musical genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda and has me even more intrigued by what he’ll put his mind to next.
All gushing aside, it has been fascinating to watch the level of success Disney Animation Studios has achieved in its most recent films compared to Pixar (the studio most would call the undisputed champ of animation). However, if the you stack up each of the studios’ two most recently released films (Finding Dory and The Good Dinosaur for Pixar, Moana and Zootopia for Disney), I’d say that the Mouse House wins, hands down. Looking into both companies’ futures, Pixar has a lot of sequels on the horizon and with the exception of the Toy Story franchise, second installments tend to be their Achilles Heel (see Cars 2). Disney, on the other hand, continues to impress with wildly original and imaginative content that’s hard to ignore.
Despite the greatness of the film as a whole, Moana is not without its flaws. There is a ten-to-fifteen-minute section towards the end of the second act that drags just a hair. There’s also a giant crab that shows up around that part whose song never quite finds its rhythm and is actually a little off-putting. Also, and I hate to say it, but The Rock isn’t the best singer. His musical number is catchy and fun, but it’s quickly apparent that there is indeed one thing this man can’t do perfectly. But that’s the only thing. He’s the busiest man in Hollywood for a reason, people.
Moana delights and impresses with stunning animation, a unique setting, well-realized, endearing characters, and songs that are bound to be instant-classics.
4.5 out of 5 stars