Dir. Ron Clements, John Musker, Script. Jared Bush
Cast (voices): Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson
Plot: The daughter of a village chief (…WE WERE DESCENDED…FROM VOYAGERS! I need to stop singing this soundtrack please help) (Cravalho) is chosen by the ocean itself to restore life to the world. AND NO PRINCES!
Disney animation – the pinnacle of movie-making. A track record of universally loved films resented by all of their competitors. The list is as star-studded as it is endless: The Little Mermaid. Aladdin. The Lion King. Tarzan. Frozen (unfortunately). Moana.
Moana is on this list because it is utterly, spellbindingly beautiful. Moana is a movie of such strength that putting it on a list amidst other classics feels like an insult to it. Moana is a classic plain and simple, a movie that will be watched by families for years upon years to come, and to deny it would simply be cynical and heartless. There’s no question in my mind that Moana is the Disney movie for the 21st Century – you still get the traditional princess narrative we’ve become innately familiar with (although whether Moana will become a Disney princess is somewhat disputed – she’s certainly not quite like the rest of them), as well as the music (although that deserves a larger conversation further down), but with none of the narrative problems and the anti-feminist plot points that older Disney movies have always purported. There are no princes here – and there’s no need for them. Go to this movie; see it even if it isn’t financially viable. I dare you to go to Moana and leave without screaming at the top of your lungs: AHWEEEEEEEEEEH AWHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEH!
It’s hard for me to articulate exactly how much Moana worked for me. I’ve always said that the Disney formula is unbreakable, and is probably the perfect distillation of cinema. Leaving that cinema screen, I was convinced (and still am) that Moana is the point at which we can refine film no more. It’s by-the-numbers in its totality, but that’s exactly why Moana will be a movie that literally nobody could hate, or even remotely dislike: Moana is a universal movie hidden within the thoroughly researched, lush world of Polynesia, and amidst all of the references to their culture. And the visual realization of Moana is unbelievable. It is easily the most beautiful movie Disney have ever animated – Moana is so beautiful to look at that real life will seem ugly and washed out. Even the tiny, minor details that aren’t really that important are bejeweled, blinding works of beauty: the lush green of the island grass of Motenui, the maddest, most batshit mental coconuts you’ve ever seen in your life, and of course, the water: animated to become a vivid character in its own right, every wave of it makes the goosebumps course through your veins again, and wake that miserable heart up.
Part of why this is can be put down to the directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, who are probably the best directorial duo you’ve never really heard of. They’ve been behind a bunch of Disney’s hand-drawn classics before the turn of the century, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin amongst them – basically, these guys know how to make a good Disney movie. Moana is the duo’s first project moving away from traditional animation to the vast banks of supercomputers and dozens of talented animators required to produce a digitally animated film, and they take to it like perfectly-feathered ducks to beautifully turquoise water. The biro-to-byte transition doesn’t hurt one bit, and brings out a whole host of benefits: Moana feels like the perfect blend between the incredible technological capabilities that CGI has presented us with as well as all of the craft and patience required in making a movie by hand – it feels like it was made with time and most definitely love. In regards to actually being directors, Clements and Musker get it bang on, nailing the inspirational tone and making Moana visually entertaining as well as spellbinding. One scene springs to mind, a Mad Max: Fury Road style ocean face-off between Moana and a swarm of incredibly angry coconuts, that is utterly inspired and beyond hilarious. The story also plays near-perfectly, and slight nit-picks into its set-up are literally the only criticisms I can muster of this entire movie. While it may be your typical ‘chosen one’ plot, it plays out in a way that feels refreshing and is watchable beyond measure.
The protagonist is also a worthy one. Moana is not a Disney princess who sings songs about what they don’t know and when they’re going to find a man to love them, but a strong three-dimensional character. Voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, a 16 year old Hawaiian actress plucked from an audition process of hundreds, you are absolutely going to fall in love with them. Cravalho’s performance is superb, with an innate power and likability that many actresses could only dream of possessing. And that’s before we get onto her singing, which is as good as any Disney singer but reportedly recorded when she was just FOURTEEN, which my little film reviewer mind can’t even compute. But the animal sidekick is present as usual (and hilariously referred to in the movie). On this occasion, its a chicken so dumb that it could define a generation. Called Heihei and voiced (or rather screamed and clucked) by Alan Tudyk, Heihei is a joy in every scene he’s in, constantly walking straight into the sea or screaming bloody murder as he realizes that’s all he can see. Also involved is Dwayne Johnson – the former WWE star turned Disney musical starrer (yes, we live in a world of endless possibilities) who is not only delightful as a brash and arrogant demigod, but actually sings and sings well. Is there nothing this man cannot do? He can ordain weddings, club men to death, and blast a lovely baritone vocal…what’s next, Grade 7 Cello exams? A well-referenced thesis on entropy?
The Rock has is own solo number, You’re Welcome, a horn-laced blare of braggadocio that is just one part of an unbelievable, utterly beautiful score. Of course, Disney has always had a host of brilliant songs and wonderful compositions, but Moana‘s music, composed in a significant part by Hamilton writer-actor/musical savant Lin-Manuel Miranda, is in a different dimension, an entirely new echelon for Disney music. Miranda’s music and lyrics have shades of his work on the uber-succesful Hamilton, and combined with Disney traditions and the spice of Polynesian rhythms spliced throughout (and a Bowie-infused number delivered by Jermaine Clement with unrelenting , this music is truly awe-inspiring. The centrepiece is of course How Far I’ll Go, a not-so-typical Disney solo empowerment number which is truly one of the best in Disney history, blowing Let It Go straight out of the ice and melting Elsa’s overdone snow castles with glorious, joyful burning intensity. The score will bring tears to your eyes, an outpouring so great that Moana‘s gorgeous ocean will drown the islands with the excess water and leave us with Kevin Costner on a flotilla. I still wonder even now if I’m surrendering to the spectre of overhype but simply put, Moana might be a near-perfect distillation of how to make a movie everybody will enjoy no matter who. It’s everything you wish for in a Disney movie and more – Moana really is movie magic.