I’m so happy that Disney’s been on top of the world this decade. It feels like the 90s all over again, when the studio would release success after success. While I don’t think any of their recent “Revival Era” films have quite reached the heights of classics like “The Lion King” or “Aladdin”, they’ve still proven to be fantastic and highly entertaining films that are worthy of the Disney name, and Moana is no different.
Moana treads familiar ground during its first act. As the film is from the same creative team behind “The Little Mermaid”, parallels can be easily made between the two films. A feisty teenager longs to explore the world beyond her home and venture out into the open seas, but her stern father initially says “Nuh.” Eventually Discoveries are made, an adventure begins and memorable characters are introduced. There’s a bit more to it than that, but If you think that sounds straightforward, that’s because it kinda is. Moana doesn’t break new ground in terms of storytelling, but it does get a lot of mileage out of its terrific main characters characters. Where do I begin? First thing’s first; The demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) pleasantly surprised me. The trailers made the character look like little more than the comic relief, but there’s more to him then that. His backstory is interesting, he’s irresistibly charming throughout, and his back-and-fourth Dialogue with Moana results in some of the funniest comedy that Disney’s written.
Speaking of Moana, she’s a solid lead. Her drive for wanting to explore the world beyond her island doesn’t come across as selfish or rash, but instead feels rather genuine and even heartfelt. (Teehee, those of you who’ve seen the movie will hopefully get it.) Even the Ocean is a character! There are several points in the film where the ocean assists Moana and Maui on their adventure, and while it’s mostly played up for comedy, it does carry a significant weight to the story that pays off nicely towards the end. There’s some fun comic relief to be had in the form of a dopey wall-eyed chicken that tags along for the ride, as well as a monstrous Crab who sings a catchy “flight of the Conchords” style song, but the real standouts are Maui and Moana, particularly when they share screentime. The animation is, of course, crisp and beautiful. Disney’s stepped it up yet again with endless shimmering oceans and luscious green islands that make you wish you could leap into the screen to take it all in. There’s even some nice little bits of Traditional animation to be found, most notably mini-Maui (Maui’s living tattoo that serves as his conscience throughout the film, and also helps provide some of the biggest laughs.)
Moana’s really good, but is it great? It doesn’t quite make it there, but almost. The biggest problem I had with with the film was it’s tendency to rush some of the character development. There’s A LOT that happens in the film, and because of this, some of the character development feels a tad light. I won’t spoil them here, but there’s a few turnarounds near the end of the film that feel a bit too quick and easy, causing them to feel less impactful. While the film is a lot of fun to watch, it doesn’t truly come alive until Moana and Maui meet eachother. The first act is fine, but it plays out a little too closely to your typical Disney Princess story, which was especially noticeable after films like Tangled and Frozen have really shaken up the genre. There’s also a reveal of the film’s antagonist a little too early on, leaving it’s grand entrance during the climax feeling a tad underwhelming. On a more positive note, the music in the film is very well done, with songs like “You’re welcome” and “Shiny” still stuck in my head as I write this review. The soundtrack itself is culturally unique and fresh, helping this film stand out amongst other Disney animated musicals.
Moana may not be as surprising or inventive as Disney’s earlier 2016 film “Zootopia”, but it’s still a fun and enjoyable ride that easily fits in nice and snuggly with the rest of the “Revival Era” films. It’s actually nice to have two vastly Disney films in one year, with Zootopia being the more “out there and unique” one, and Moana being a very comforting classical Disney story. 2016, for the most part, has been a really weak year for film, but Moana will be fondly remembered as one of the good ones.