It’s genuinely nice, especially as a parent, to have Disney once again producing entertaining, engaging animation for kids. There was a long period where the company’s slump was noticeable, and even after the resurgence that began with Aladdin and The Lion King, there’s been a long period where the best “Disney” films didn’t come from Disney proper, but rather, from Pixar. But over their past few releases – Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and of course, Frozen – Disney has started to come back to life. And, no, not every film is equally masterful, but they’re solid, engaging, funny, and nicely rich – and better than that, they’re moving away from the company’s reliance on “princesses” and white-dude-centric fairy tales.
Which brings us to Moana, Disney’s latest. Yes, in a broad sense, Moana is pure formula, without too many surprises along the way. It’s the story of a brave young girl who feels hemmed in by her familial obligations (she’s set to become the chief of the tribe), and eventually leaves her homeland to go on a quest to save her country by rescuing the demigod Maui. Once you set aside the gender swap of the whole thing, this is a story we’ve seen so often, albeit not often set in the Pacific Islands and in their mythology.
And yet, that familiarity doesn’t hold back Moana, which manages to be funny, charming, exciting, and well-told, helped along in no small part by the two great lead performances of newcomer Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson. That Johnson’s charisma shines through even in his voice acting is a welcome relief; I was worried that confining him to a voice would hold him back, but they’ve captured much of his persona in the animation for Maui, which only underlines how much fun he’s having in the role. And Cravalho is a natural, bringing the role of Moana to wonderful life, and letting her be a confident, brave girl who’s pushing herself as hard as she can.
Mind you, the wonderful animation doesn’t hurt, delivering some jaw-dropping moments along the way here, including a volcanic god that looks like a staggering force of nature, and a joyous action sequence that somehow brings Mad Max: Fury Road into a Disney film without missing a beat. More than that, though, the characterization brought out in the animation is great, between Johnson’s lively tattoos, Cravalho’s unruly hair, and a gloriously deadpan chicken that made me happy by doing so little.
But, in what will come as a shock to precisely no one, much of the joy of Moana comes to the music, which ranks as my favorite music in a Disney film perhaps ever. That can be chalked up to the presence of the brilliant, inimitable Lin-Manuel Miranda beyond the songs, and his catchy gift for melodies and knack for wordplay makes the songs impossible not to enjoy. (The best is Johnson’s infernally catchy and wonderful “You’re Welcome,” which is wonderfully entertaining, and that’s before Miranda lets his rapping flow loose; that being said, Jemaine Clement’s “Shiny” feels like a lost Flight of the Conchords song – more specifically, like a riff on their wonderful “Bowie,” which Miranda acknowledges as a huge influence on the song. It’s a wonderful villain song by any standards, and a pretty great number all on its own.)
Is Moana the best family film of the year? No, definitely not; it’s not as ambitious as Zootopia‘s racial allegory (though it might be more consistent), and it’s not as sweeping and beautiful as the astonishing Kubo and the Two Strings. But what it is is incredibly entertaining, packing in some fun comedy, some great vocal performances, some great sequences, and an engaging story that rejects the need to make every single story about “true love” or “fitting in”. And, man, that music. No, it may not be one of the Great Disney Films of All Time, but I had a blast watching it – and given my kids’ reaction, I’m sure I’ll be seeing it plenty in my future.