Normally when reviewing a movie, you come up with a healthy mix of positive and negative things to say about it. In the case of Disney’s Moana, though, I’m really struggling to come up with the latter. It’s just that wonderful.
Where to begin? Well, it’s probably no surprise that the animation is gorgeous. Water is one of the hardest things in the world to mimic and this film, which is largely set on or near the ocean, does it seamlessly in almost every single shot. Then there are the songs, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina, which are catchy and expertly placed in the story. (We’re talking old-school, Disney-level stuff—songs you and your kids will be singing for years to come.) Then there are the characters who, from top to bottom, are memorable and well-rounded. Of course, the leads are great but even the sidekicks, the rooster Hei Hei and pig Pua, are delightful. Plus, the film doesn’t shy away from going a little dark. Characters die, are placed in mortal peril, and reject their core beliefs at the behest of everything they love.
Directed by Disney legends Ron Clements and John Musker, Moana follows a young girl (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) who leaves the comfort of her home island to travel the ocean, meet a demigod, and save the world. That sounds basic, but it’s not handled that way. One of the other things that truly makes Moana special is its structure. The actual adventure doesn’t happen for a little over half the movie; instead, the first half takes its time making sure the audience cares about Moana and her people. They’re a group with a long, rich history, all of which is crucial to you understanding the magnitude of what she sets out to do.
Moana’s discovery of her past is the audience’s as well, so we learn her customs, legends, friends and foes in a very snappy and enlightening first act. That’s also bolstered by the songs, which forward character and story simultaneously. It all work in tandem, so by the time Moana takes the leap and leaves on her adventure, you’re fully invested. Then things get only better.
That’s in large part because of Maui, the aforementioned demigod, voiced by Dwayne Johnson as an entertaining, charismatic whirlwind. He instantly becomes the perfect foil to the fresh-faced, confident Moana. They have incredible chemistry and their back and forth banter, along with burgeoning friendship, give the quest some much-needed unpredictability. It also provides for a bevy of laughs and some excellent action sequences.
Actually, I do have one gripe, I guess—one of its side plots feels superfluous. During the film, Moana and Maui must go get Maui’s magical fish hook from a villain named Tamatoa. The scene almost needlessly halts the main drive of the story, which would be a bigger problem if it wasn’t saved by a wonderful song called “Shiny,” written by Miranda and performed by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame. Hearing Clement sing Miranda’s words is worth the price of admission alone.
That one semi-problematic scene aside, it’s obvious a lot of attention has been paid to keep Moana’s tone cohesive, and Musker and Clements are magicians with emotion. Things in Moana go from sad to exciting and back again in an instant but it never feels like it’s too much.
It all leads up to a chill-inducing climax accompanied by an uplifting message about trusting in yourself no matter what the odds. Admittedly, Moana isn’t reinventing the wheel here, but the way the film gets there is so effective, the message lands extra hard.
Moana is a gorgeously animated, incredibly funny film with great music, characters, and story. It rightfully earns its spot in the pantheon of Disney animation. See it.