Release Date: November 23rd, 2016
Directed by: Ron Clements and John Musker
Music & Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina
Starring: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, and Alan Tudyk
I've started putting together my Top Films of 2016, and between Marvel and animated films it's starting to look like my list might be entirely Disney-centric. When Zootopia was released, I felt that Disney had a top contender for Best Animated Film at the next Oscars. Zootopia surprised me, because I had no clue from the trailers how deep the story, art, and world design really was, and I walked away thinking it was a highly entertaining and poignant animated film. I knew Disney could top it, because that's what Disney does: it raises the bar. I just didn't think it would top it within the same year.
I need to get this out now before we start going in depth here. I. Loved. This. Movie. Moana is the first film on Geekundspiel that has received a full 5 out of 5 since it was launched in August. It's return-to-form Disney magic in a hundred minutes that calls back to the studio's previous hand-drawn animated successes, but then again what else would you expect from directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who gave us The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and The Princess and the Frog.*
Moana tells the story of its titular character, the daughter of an island chief who is drawn to the ocean her entire life, but is not allowed to venture past the reefs that surround the island. When a mysterious force begins to rot the island's crops and scare the fish away, Moana is the only one who knows its source: corruption sprung from the former goddess Te Fiti, who's heart was stolen by the demigod Maui a millennia earlier. Moana takes it upon herself to venture out past the reefs into the wide ocean to find the missing demigod Maui, restore Te Fiti's heart, and save her family and people.
The art and animation in this film is incredible. The ocean, a character in itself, is gorgeously rendered in the most realistic water CGI I've ever seen. The clothing, tattoos, music, architecture, and nautical technology, look real while still having the expressiveness that only animation can create. There are some fantastic tableaus and scenes that still stand out in my memory, including a great trick with the "camera" where Moana looks up at a huge vessel and we can feel its size and grandeur bearing down on us, or a moment where her boat sits completely still on the vast ocean at night, the water completely calm and reflecting the image like a mirror.
It is my understanding that the producers and directors spent over five years researching Polynesian culture, visiting Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti and creating an "Oceanic Story Trust" that was consulted and approved everything from costumes to tattoo markings. So far I've seen people of Moari and Hawaiian descent praising the film's respectful use of their heritage. One of the ways Disney got it right was by casting all speaking roles in the film with actors of Polynesian descent. Actors Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, and Jemain Clement (yes, that Jemaine Clement) are of Māori descent, Nicole Scherzinger and newcomer Auli'i Cravalho are Hawaiian, and Dwayne Johnson is half-Samoan. The only exception is Alan Tudyk, who voices the chicken Heihei and has no speaking lines. (Tudyk has been in every Disney animated feature film classic since Wreck-It Ralph and seems to be slowly transforming into Disney's version of Pixar's John Ratzenberger.) It's nice to see that Disney is trying a little harder than some other studios to not whitewash its cast, or for this film at least.
And what a cast it is. The voice acting in this film is excellent, with 15-year-old Auli'i Cravalho in the title part with a well-trained singing voice and a tone that fits the younger and headstrong lead role perfectly. I could go on about the acting, but it's the singing I really want to talk about. Cravalho's performances of Moana's beautiful songs, especially "How Far I'll Go" and "I Am Moana" are touching pieces that sent chills down my spine. She is complimented by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who continues to show how versatile an actor he is by singing, I think, for the first time in film. And he does sing. A full song. And he does it (reasonably) well. His character Maui's song "You're Welcome" reminds me of Robin William's performance of "Friend Like Me" in Aladdin. Williams wasn't the strongest singer, but his expression and personality sold it, and "You're Welcome" is a similar character-centric showstopper where Johnson not only carries a tune, but very successfully raps in the middle of it. Another stand-out is Jemaine Clement's perfectly delivered "Shiny," sung by a villainous character in a David Bowie-inspired number.
The music was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina, but it's Miranda that has everyone's attention, most likely due to the success of a little-known musical called Hamilton. While he definitely lends his influence throughout all of the songs (and even lends his voice rather prominently in "We Know the Way"), his writing is clearly heard in the clever lyrics of "Shiny" and in the very Miranda-ish rap of "You're Welcome."
While watching Moana, I couldn't help but compare it to Frozen several times, but mostly in how unlike that movie it is. Frozen had music that was on average "just OK," with the exception of the amazing "Let It Go," (and yes people, it is amazing, despite the fact that I want to rip my ears off if I hear it one more time). Alternatively, Moana's music is consistently fantastic, and every piece stands out on its own as something special.
The movie has charm, wit, high stakes, varying degrees of humor for all ages, and is overall a solid movie. I wanted to watch it again immediately after it was over. In fact the only complaint I had about the film had nothing to do with Moana itself, but rather with Inner Workings, the incredibly weak animated short film that preceded it (there's not much to say about it, other than it tries too hard to be Pixar-ish and falls flat).
I seriously hope that my gushing about this film doesn't give too high of an expectation for people who have not seen it, because I know that heightened expectations can alter the perception of quality. But I can't help it. I cannot recommend a film like Moana highly enough. Go out and see it in theaters now while you still can. You won't be disappointed.
*I'm not sure how intentional it may be, but there are a lot of callbacks, shout-outs, and references to past Musker/Clements animated films. There's a Little Mermaid reference during the post-credits scene, Maui's song feels a lot like Aladdin's "Friends Like Me," Maui himself shares a lot of similarities with Hercules, and the character of Tamatoa has a freaky black-light moment akin to Doctor Facilier's "Friends on the Other Side."