Disney delivers moving musical masterpiece “Moana”

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Disney’s newest film, “Moana,” is a heartwarming and funny tale of the South Pacific with songs that will stay in the viewer’s head for weeks.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

In a sea of greatness, standing out from the crowd is hard. The near-untouchable history of Disney musical films creates this problem every year, but “Moana” easily shines just as bright.

Young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of the village chief on Motunui, a Pacific island. Refreshingly, she is expected to take her father’s place when she comes of age without even a mention of her gender. She longs to explore the sea, but her responsibilities keep her bound to land. When all of the food on the island begins to mysteriously go bad, Moana accepts her call to adventure and begins the search for shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to return a magical stone to its proper resting place, which will appease the gods and save her island.

The banter between the two leads brings a kinetic energy to the dialogue, never leaving a dull moment. Moana and Maui initially have a very cold relationship, each trying to gain something from the other: Maui wanting Moana’s boat, and Moana needing Maui’s help. Their rocky first bond leads to a story that slowly builds a realistic friendship and thankfully never once hints at the typical princess romance. 

Moana and Maui venture across the seas and the story becomes episodic, with the two heroes overcoming one obstacle at a time. One of these is a gang of “Mad Max”-inspired anthropomorphic coconuts in a sea-bound pursuit of the heroes. Another is a trip through the Realm of Monsters, which includes a hilarious David Bowie-like song from Flight of the Conchords band member Jemaine Clement.

As the movie propels toward its conclusion, the predictable easy win for the heroes becomes more and more likely — before suddenly taking a sharp, surprising turn. This leads to two songs and two scenes that are simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, aided by some of the finest Disney songwriting this side of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

The decision to hire “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda pays off in spades, as the songs bring a perfect sense of liveliness and heart that pays tribute to Disney’s past while also carving a new path. The songs take the archetypes viewers expect, such as the “I Want” song and the villain song, then turns them on their head, sometimes to powerful emotional effect.

The voices are also perfectly cast, with Dwayne Johnson bringing the perfect sense of humor, arrogance and surprising rap skills to Maui. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho adds spunk to the titular hero and has a masterful control of her voice. She belts the show-stopping ballad as easily as the softer moments, expertly manipulating the
audience’s emotions. Alan Tudyk, a Disney veteran, provides the sounds of a wordless idiot chicken named Heihei, a hilarious parody of the prototypical Disney animal sidekick.

“Moana” is a story of contrasting opposites: land and sea, water and fire, empathy and fear. Even the two main characters are a small human girl and a large male demigod. In telling a story of contradictions, the filmmakers effortlessly create conflict without even needing a true villain. In this story, the antagonist is simply the conflict they face and the barriers which prevent them from achieving it, not some nefarious monster manipulating the story behind the scenes. In doing this, the writers spend more time fleshing out the characters. “Moana”’s greatness truly shines when these fully rounded characters sing Miranda’s lyrics, tying the film’s best pieces together and frequently bringing the audience to tears.

Some may call Disney’s current hot streak its second renaissance. The filmmakers at Disney are certainly producing movies of a higher quality than 10 years ago, with the great recent output including “Frozen” and “Zootopia.” If “Frozen” started this second renaissance, “Moana” is the pinnacle — a hilarious, heartwarming tale with songs children will sing forever.

“Moana”

  • Rating: PG
  • Runtime: 113 minutes
  • Score: 5/5 stars