I’ve made no secret of my opinion that Walt Disney Animation Studios hit a high point in their newest creative revival earlier this year with Zootopia, the culmination of a streak that began with The Princess and the Frog. Zootopia is a high bar to clear for whatever film Disney chose to release next, especially since it’s less than a year old and still in the public mind. But Moana, which comes from the minds behind not only The Princess and the Frog, but The Little Mermaid and Aladdin as well, is a more than worthy new entry into the Disney canon – one that plays to Disney’s history while also making itself distinct.
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Chief Tui (Temeura Morrison), and next in line to become chief herself. Among her future responsibilities is a duty to protect their village, which includes keeping people from traveling beyond the safety of their island’s reef. Her sense of duty, though, combats a deep connection she’s felt to the ocean since she was a toddler. When Moana’s people begin to see their island’s resources stripped of life, Moana learns that the key to saving her people is leaving to fix something she thought was simply a story in her childhood, with the help of the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson).
Moana marks the first film from directors Ron Clements and John Musker to be done in CGI rather than traditional animation, and the shift results in one of the most vibrant, rich visualizations to come from the modern Disney era. It’s simply gorgeous, and it’s inventive with how it diverts to showcase stories of Maui that Moana both learns as a toddler and as a teenager from Maui himself.
Clements and Musker are known for their musicals, even though they’ve directed other films for the studio as well, and while Moana continues in that tradition, it also infuses new life into their formula. Lin-Manuel Miranda is among the talent brought in to write songs for the film, and the Tony winner adapts his style to Disney’s own style with aplomb. Songs like “You’re Welcome” and “Shiny” will likely catch on with viewers, while “How Far I’ll Go” is a worthy addition to the hero’s song that’s a crucial part to a Disney musical.
The film is also remarkably well-cast. Moana is among the most distinctive protagonists in a Disney film, with a self-confidence that’s inspiring. She’s paired well with Maui, as the two have a relationship that starts off as contentious but grows into something where they’re both aware how much they need each other. As important as Moana thinks Maui may be, though, it becomes clear that he can’t succeed on his own, and that Moana herself is vital to the success of their journey. This realization from both characters only helps them grow over the course of the film.
They’re surrounded by a strong supporting cast of characters, starting with a slew from Moana’s island – highlighted by the brainless rooster named Heihei (Alan Tudyk) to Moana’s supportive Gramma Tala (Rachel House). As Moana and Maui make their adventure across the sea, they face off against a number of challenges, including a group called the Kakamora, a bunch of pirate coconuts who create one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences. They also encounter Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), an enormous crab determined to cover his shell with everything shiny (and yes, the aforementioned “Shiny” comes from him).
Moana does hit some notes that will ring as familiar to anyone who’s watched a Disney film, but it’s done so well here, it’s hard to argue against it. Moana is a pure delight, and it further solidifies the new golden age of Disney’s animation team.