Review: Moana (2016)

Moana

Rating

Director

Ron Clements, John Musker

Screenplay

Jared Bush, Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kendall, Jordan Kendall

Length

103 min.

Starring

Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk

MPAA Rating

PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements

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Review

It all began with fairy tales. Walt Disney built an empire on the backs of the likes of Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. Over time, they have honed their techniques and through thick-and-thin have managed to continually push the boundaries of animation further. Moana may not be a revolutionary step forward, but it falls perfectly into the storied universe of Disney’s vision.

Throughout its history, Disney’s princesses have largely come from noteworthy fairy tales from the likes of Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm. Their history of non-fairy tale animated films has been checkered, but since the studio’s rebirth at the turn of the 1990s, they have managed to create new stories that are almost bolder than their adaptations.

Moana is loosely based on Hawaiian legend. It tells the story of a young island girl (Auli’i Craalho) with a heart that longs to sail the ocean. To save her island from an encroaching evil unleashed by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), she seeks out the “shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, and hero of men (and women)” to help return Te Fiti’s heart and stop the evil spirit Te Ka whose tendrils are spreading across the ocean.

Disney has brought back to their team Ron Clements and John Musker, the pair behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, who helped usher in the revitalization of the company with those films. Clements and Musker also helped in starting the current era of the company’s output with The Princess and the Frog. Their first film in seven years is reminiscent of their past work, making it feel like they never left. For good or ill, their return is a welcome one.

The biggest problem with the Disney Princess films is that they hinge on fairly predictable narrative structures. The rise and fall of action, the types of hindrances and obstacles put in the way of the protagonists, the anthropomorphic comic relief, and many other concepts, are as ingrained in the Disney ethos as they are in cinema in general

Cravalho is a treasure. Her vocal talents are immense and while Johnson more than carries his own parts, it’s Cravalho who dominates. She invokes the spirit of the great Disney princesses with effortless charm, giving us a strong, powerful addition to the family and extending the prominence of such female characters thanks to a script that is Disney’s most empowering to date. This marks the latest incarnation that sees the princess not getting married off in the end and that’s a wonderful message to send to young women.

As has become the Disney standard, the animation is beautiful, an evolutionary move forward. The colors pop off the screen while keeping things reined in enough to feel realistic. In its efforts to push the boundaries of the medium, Disney creates more visually dazzling worlds in which the characters can move without feeling so distinctly advanced that it looks out of place in their oeuvre.

Where the film suffers most is in its song score. While there are some nice moments, it is ultimately filled with minor tunes that aren’t nearly as hummable or memorable as tracks like “Let It Go,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Colors of the Wind,” and the like. Keeping itself grounded in Hawaiian musical traditions is a grand thing, but when the action stops so that characters can belt out a song, those productions don’t excite the way they have in prior Disney features.

There are bright spots in the score, but they are hindered by a few frustrating elements. You’re Welcome” is somewhat catchy, but becomes quickly tiresome; “We Know the Way,” feels familiar, but was so overused in the trailers, that the final production number felt stale; and “Shiny” is quite humorous for a villain number, yet feels utterly out of place in the score as a whole.

There’s plenty to love about Moana, but it doesn’t feel as strong as Frozen, nor as inventive as The Princess and the Frog or Wreck-It Ralph. The best comparison is probably Tangled, which was entertaining to a fault. Ultimately it is not one of the best of Disney’s illustrious track, but it is also, thankfully, not one of the worst.

Oscar Prospects

Guarantees: Animated Feature, Original Score, Original Song
Potentials: Original Song Score (the unused spare category that hasn’t been given in years, but could show up with at least two noted musicals in release this year), Sound Mixing, Sound Editing

Review Written

December 9, 2016

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