Pixar and Disney’s own in-house animation studio have had a constant battle for decades, going back to the golden renaissance begun by The Little Mermaid.
Disney held the crown until Pixar came along with Toy Story, usurping the throne and sitting cockily through 2010 with Toy Story 3.
But in-house Disney was banging on the gates since launching its own computer-animated division with Chicken Little in 2006. When Pixar fell into the stagnation of sub-par sequels, Disney swooped in with Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen, resurging once again and staying there.
Pixar made an admirable attempt last year to stage a comeback, but the goodwill of Inside Out was eroded somewhat with The Good Dinosaur. The House of Mouse, meanwhile, has followed their winning Zootopia this year with their best animated movie in over twenty years.
On the Polynesian island of Motunui, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is raised by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), to be the future leader of their tribe.
Ever since she was a toddler, Moana has been drawn to the ocean, entranced by its mysteries. Tui’s only rule is that no one sails beyond the reef that encircles their island, a protocol that has kept their tribe safe for years. (No points for guessing if Moana ultimate ignores his wishes.)
By the time Moana reaches her teens, the island’s fish and flora have begun mysteriously dying. Her grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), confides in her that before Tui forbade sailing the oceans, their people were sailors and explorers.
She also tells Moana that a millennium ago, the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti, which is the cause for the curse that has now spread to Motunui.
Against her father’s wishes, Moana sets off on a voyage to find Maui, get him to return Te Fiti’s heart, and restore balance to the islands.
Much of the setup is a variation on previous animated Disney movies, as are the characters and much of the overall plot, but Moana is proof that cliches work brilliantly when executed with artistry and skill.
The animation here is the equal to anything Pixar has accomplished, if not better. The scenic visuals lend themselves to gorgeous vistas of vibrant blues and greens, which does a lot of heavy lifting for the movie. Even the character design is spot-on, recalling both the realism of Frozen and the whimsy of The Incredibles.
Cravalho is exceptional as Moana, able to conjure effervescence, despair, and strength as the story calls for it. What’s more, she knocks all of her songs out of the park.
Johnson is not quite as strong a singer, but better than you likely expect. He doesn’t have the range of Cravalho, but his sporting attitude and excited energy go a long way to support his more-than-adequate singing voice and his comic timing makes up for everything else.
The greatest animated Disney movies all have brilliant soundtracks and Moana fits in perfectly with the likes of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. The songs, co-written by Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, are a collection of earworms without a dud in the bunch. For millennials missing soundtracks like from the Disney movies of their youth, it’s a wonderful treat, with songs recalling greats from Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.
It’s no coincidence, actually, that those two movies feel so close in spirit and tone to Moana, as it’s directed by the same duo responsible for both Disney classics, Ron Clements and John Musker. Moana is a peer to The Little Mermaid and Aladdin; younger in age but wise beyond her years and so winningly smart in every way she tackles what should feel like overly familiar tropes.
Ultimately, the familiarity of so much of the structure and plot from Disney movies past prevents Moana from being the best animated movie of the year — an honour impossible to be taken from Kubo and the Two Strings at this point — but it sails circles around Zootopia, which was itself a great movie. (And how refreshing for a Disney movie’s heroine to not have a prince or even a love interest!)
Walking out of Moana, I had the same excited feeling I did after first watching Frozen, wanting to rush home to begin listening again to the soundtrack. The whole time writing this review, I’ve just been listening to it on repeat. Not that I need the music anymore; it’s ingrained in my memory already, the same way “Part of Your World” and “Friend Like Me” are all these years later. That’s something Pixar still can’t say.