Rating: A or 10 out of 10 coconuts!
Synopsis- Polynesian chief-to-be goes on a mission to save her island.
Disney Animation is having a pretty good run right now. They churned out Finding Dory and Zootopia in the same year, had quite the hit with Frozen, and have Wreck-It Ralph 2 in the works. However, despite this success, there’s nothing quite reminiscent (re: worthy) of their Golden Age musicals. There’s something really special about those, no matter how much fun Pixar and digital animation are. For years 1988 to 1997, we were blessed with an Alan Menken movie almost every year (fun fact: Mulan is not a Menken movie and I’m not counting the Lion King either), in the form of a classic musical with some talking animals.
What I find incredible about those Menken-penned (and Howard Ashman/Stephen Schwartz, depending on the movie) is the agelessness of the music. I loved them all when I was younger, but I can listen to them as an adult and really appreciate the components behind them all. Menken wrote his scores with a classic Broadway formula: always an intro-to-the-world, an “I Want” song by the hero, a villain song, maybe a sidekick song, one or two side numbers, a fall-apart song, and a reprise. Hey, it works! No matter how much a friend says they despise Disney, you could follow up with “But Part of Your World, amirite?” and your friend would be all, “Aw.”
I’ve been waiting for a this-generation animated musical since Enchanted since it got my hopes up so high. I still haven’t seen Tangled or Princess and the Frog. Frozen didn’t quite cut it for me. I was all for building a snowman, and then First Time in Forever hit, and there were trolls and I liked it- still do- but I couldn’t fully hop on the hype train. It all seemed a bit surface-level to me. THEN I heard about Moana, which was going to explore Polynesian culture, be guided by an Oceanic Trust, be penned by Lin-Manuel (I’ve listened to Hamilton enough, I can drop the Miranda), be directed by the same team behind the Little Mermaid and…
FEATURE DWAYNE JOHNSON. SINGING. I was sold. And I thought maybe, just maybe, this would be the Disney musical I’ve been waiting for. In a nutshell, it is. Was. Whatever.
Simply put, Moana is perfect.
Moana capitalizes on so many things other Disney “Princess” movies miss the mark on. It’s like what the Little Mermaid would have been if Triton found Ariel’s cave without any mention of Prince Eric and she just left saying, “I’m getting legs.” It’s like if Mulan ended without a romantic interest in Shang at the end (what a throwaway). It’s what Pocahontas would be like without John Smith and more historical context. Basically, it’s a really good, coming-of-age story and it happens to be for a young woman who is ready to bring it. Disney’s been reworking this since Snow White but it hasn’t been until Moana where I feel they’ve scored on all aspects.
Is it formulaic? Sure, but that shouldn’t detract from its actual value- it’s a damn good movie! The plot is simple- save the goddess, defeat the monster, save the island- but it’s far from just a Disney Princess Movie. Moana provides so many layers in its characterization, non-romantic relationships, and incredible portrayal of culture… it’s hard not to marvel at how many thumbs up they were able to stuff in 100 minutes. (Seriously, there are references and Easter eggs everywhere.)
I don’t think I need to gush over the visuals of this movie because it’s Disney, so let’s get to the other strong points of the movie- the music and the voice acting. Johnson gives one of the best Disney voice performances of all time- it’s just as good as Ellen Degeneres as Dory and right up there with Robin Williams’ Genie. Johnson is like America’s Hugh Jackman- multi-talented, can carry a tune well, more charismatic in his right foot than my entire body, goofy, bonafide action star- just much beefier. And with less hair. As a longtime wrestling fan, I’m thrilled he’s getting recognized for non-action skills- seriously, his improvisation and vignettes are some of the best WWE moments of all time. The guy is hilarious and his delivery of “kooky-dook” is an instant classic. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho- what a presence!- gives the title character innocence, depth, and determination all at once. Her singing is incredible. The relationship between the two is highly reminiscent of Aladdin and Genie; however, where Genie was more of a one-man show, Maui and Moana are equals in sharpness and wit. The two play off each other remarkably well and the chemistry is as colorful as the visuals. Other voices: Jermaine Clement’s Shiny is just delightful. Also, Alan Tudyk and Troy Polamalu show up! And George Washington (Chris Jackson)! What!?
To go along with that, Miranda proves he’s not just a one-trick-Hamilton pony. The Moana lyrics do exactly what a classic Menken-written movie would- expose the characters, move the plot along, and have a fun along the way. It’s really a lovely soundtrack- I always skip a few songs during a Disney soundtrack, but there aren’t any slow spots in Moana’s. They’re each different, vibrant, and written to compliment each actor’s vocal abilities (You’re Welcome and Shiny). The two ensemble songs (To Where You Are and We Know the Way, written by Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i), as well as the majority of the score (Mark Mancina), are thoughtfully infused with Polynesian culture, which really breathes the movie to life. Foa’i is the Lebo M of this movie, intricately weaving his native tongue with modern music, as Miranda works his magic for us to understand the richness of this world.
How Far I’ll Go possibly the best and most meaningful “I Want” Disney Princess song of all time. It’s the Wait for It of Moana and displays Miranda’s song-writing ability at it’s best- it’s carefully constructed so the music itself is emotive of what she is singing, pushing the limits of Carvalho’s vocals while allowing her to soar throughout the song and thus, her journey. When she belts “I am Moana,” it hits emotional value on so many different levels- it’s proud, declarative, strong, and embodies the entire character. The song is everything you need to know about who Moana is, revisited at the appropriate times, and gives her further development every time it shows up. It’s what a good song does. It’s what a good musical does.
To go along with that, Moana is a simply phenomenal character. She’s strong-willed, determined, and most importantly, capable. She’s willing to take on responsibility and the role of her tribe’s chief and welcomes the opportunity to become a leader. She’s a far cry from what we’ve come to think of as a typical animated female and it’s long overdue. Moana is half-Mulan, half-Pocahontas, with a dash of Ariel and a sprinkling of Aladdin and is one of the best-developed characters Disney has in their lineup.
Overall, Moana is everything you would want from any movie, not just animated, not just Disney, not just musical. It’s well-paced, well-written, strikes both dramatic and comedic gold at the same time, meaningful, action-adventure-packed, features strong cast, and many memorable moments. Strongly recommend- several times.