Disney hit its the first home run with Aurora, became the first animated film to win Best Picture with Belle, and introduced otherness with Pochahontas. Now, Disney brings Moana — not a princess — but the daughter of the chief with a distinction she makes loud and proud.
With music from Lin-Manuel Miranda (the genius behind Hamilton and In The Heights), Mark Mancina (who merged Elton John and traditional African music for The Lion King), and legendary Polynesian musician Opetaia Foa’i, the heyday of Disney musicals has returned triumphant. Miranda’s lyrics soar with passion and land with a powerful rhythmic punch. His tunes are so catchy, you’ll be trying to sing along before the song has even finished. Opetaia embodies the spirit of aloha in a moving tribute to his ancestors, We Know the Way.
Hearing Dwayne Johnson perform a condescending and patronizing “You’re Welcome” is as charming as Robin Williams’ song, “Never had a Friend Like Me”. Johnson’s role doesn’t stretch the limit of vocal acting but is none the less the perfect casting decision for an insecure demi-god running from his past. His years of buddy/adventure movies culminate to this role where his sweet bass and cocky swagger form the perfect companion for Moana.
Music and sidekicks are classic staples of every Disney films, but it’s the princesses that keep people coming back. For years Disney has tried to create a feminist princess. They tried it with Tiana, but the first Black Disney Princess spends most of her time as a frog. They tried it with Anna and Elsa while doubling down and using the “classic bitch” vs. “love crazy” trope. Jasmine was a sex slave for Jaffar and Pocahontas was depicted as an exotic sexy adventure for John.
About the only Disney Princess film to get it right was Mulan (who neither princess nor the daughter of a high-powered male) — that is, until Moana. Moana avoids the sexy and rebel-without-a-cause trope we see young women in so often and wants to live up to her role as the future leader of her people without compromising her individuality. Actress Auli’i Cravalho, in her first job ever, soars as the voice of Moana — and if there are any doubts wait until the climactic “I am Moana”. When she sings the name Moana in the most crystal clear and full tone, it stole the breath from the audience. Cravalho has a long career to look forward to if she chooses.
Moana isn’t entirely a unique story. If you’ve seen one coming-of-age story, you can probably guess each plot point, however, the presentation is so damn impressive it’s certainly worth the cost a ticket. The Imagineers have constructed entirely new coding to animate the look and feel of the water. Where the ocean was usually depicted as a combination of blue hues with sparkles or white foam for accent, Moana’s animation team found a way to bring in the translucent properties of the sea.
The look, performances, and music make for a full film experience. Be sure to download the soundtrack before you hit the theater — it’ll be requested on the ride home.
Moana sets sail into theaters on November 23.