Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Opens November 23
After Zootopia’s ambitious social allegory earlier this year, Moana, the latest from Walt Disney Animation, can’t help but feel slightly disappointing in its retreat into formula. Its title character (voiced by newcomer Auli’l Cravalho) is yet another Disney princess who, as was the case with Ariel in The Little Mermaid—also directed by Moana co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker—defies warnings from her overprotective father of the dangers of leaving their island and going too far out to sea, and embarks on a seafaring adventure of her own. Even the cast of characters and their individual personalities fit familiar Disney molds: Moana is saddled with a, uh, bird-brain of a chicken for an animal sidekick (clucked by Alan Tudyk); and a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) who, somewhat like the Genie in Aladdin, turns out to be more vain goofball than menacing villain, his imposing physique belied by his surfer-like demeanor. And it will take most people all of five minutes to predict its empowering “fulfilling your destiny” dramatic arc, a destination that screenwriter Jared Bush (who also wrote Zootopia) doesn’t really bother to subvert in any interesting way.
Still, if Moana never quite transcends its musty narrative trappings, at least there are enough incidental pleasures to be had along the way. The collaboration between composer Mark Mancina, Hamilton composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda and Te Vaka lead singer Opetaia Foa’i proves to be a fruitful one, with Miranda’s hip-hop stylings in songs like “You’re Welcome” and “How Far I’ll Go” offering a breath of fresh air to the traditional Disney movie-musical style. And Moana certainly offers plenty to ravish the eye. Not only are the Polynesian vistas often breathtaking to behold in their bold colors and attention to detail—rarely has animated bodies of water looked so vividly realistic on-screen—but the episodic storyline has inspired some of the Disney animators’ wildest flights of fancy: a band of cute-looking diminutive pirates who don armor made out of coconuts, a psychedelically glammed-up giant crab (voiced by Jemaine Clement); the sentient tattoo on Maui’s torso that acts as a kind of non-speaking Greek chorus to its host’s antics.
Perhaps the freshest pleasure of Moana, however, lies in the sheer spectacle of seeing a female heroine in a Disney movie who, for once, isn’t beholden to any outside forces—whether a male love interest, familial traditions, or otherwise—in pursuing her dreams. It turns out that Moana’s great love is, in fact, the ocean and all the freedom of exploration it represents to her. Perhaps it’s fitting that the ocean itself is anthropomorphized in the film: playing games with her, introducing her to the heart-stone that will define her destiny, even rescuing her in times of trouble. Moana may not be the most original of Disney films, but in presenting us this young woman with complete agency, it may be, even more than Frozen, the most progressive of their recent efforts.