I sound like a broken record at this point, but I'll say it again: Disney is having one hell of a year. Not just in terms of dollars at the box office, but creatively they have done some of their best work in years. While "Alice Through the Looking Glass" was rotten and "Queen of Katwe" and "The BFG" flopped, "The Jungle Book," "Zootopia," "Finding Dory," "Pete's Dragon," and now, "Moana," were all critical and commercial successes.
"Moana" might not have the thematic importance of "Zootopia" or the raw emotional heft of "Dory," but it's one of the finest animated musicals Disney has put out in years. I'm gonna say it: it's better than "Frozen" and none of the songs will annoy you as badly as "Let It Go." That might be because of the brilliant trio of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina writing the songs, but it also might have something to do with the story being told.
Some time in the ancient past, the goddess Te Fiti creates all life on Earth and then becomes an island. The demigod Maui steals a small stone that is also Te Fiti's heart, but when a lava demon attacks him, Maui loses the stone as well as his powers.
A thousand years later, we meet Moana, the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe. She is desperate to explore past their reef, but their tribe hasn't left that boundary in generations. When their island's vegetation begins to die and their fish start disappearing, Moana must go on a quest to find Maui and replace the stone in the heart of Te Fiti or the darkness will continue to consume their home.
This is a very typical hero's quest adventure right out of the pages of Joseph Campbell, but the combination of gorgeous animation, fun and vibrant characters and a refreshingly feminist storyline makes everything feel new. Putting the stone back into the heart of an ancient island goddess sounds like a typical McGuffin, but we care so much about Moana, Maui and their brain-damaged chicken companion that we're desperate for the story to have a happy ending.
Another refreshing aspect is Moana herself. Newcomer Auli'i Cravalho instills Moana with such wisdom, humor and strength that the character comes alive off the screen. Moana is the perfect heroine for young girls in our modern era. Even though she needs the help of Maui (voiced by The Rock with his usual suave charisma), she's never a damsel in distress. Whenever she's in trouble, she's always trying to find her own way out of it and never relying on the big strong man to help her.
Meanwhile, I can't say enough about the songs in "Moana." Jemaine Clement's "Shiny" is reminiscent of Bowie at his best, while Cravalho's "How Far I'll Go" is an instant Disney classic. It's a testament to the brand that we can see Disney characters clutching onto boats and singing into the horizon in multiple movies, and yet it works almost every time. I know I'm being emotionally manipulated but the tears in my eyes could care less. Shut up and take my money, Disney, you've done it again.
Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker
Old Mill Stadium 16, Sisters Movie House and Redmond Cinema