When Disney released Frozen in 2013, it was a unique story with traditional (the nice way of saying “stereotypical”) characters, accompanied by gorgeous images and fantastic music. Moana flips but two of those things: it is a traditional story with unique and terrific characters, accompanied by gorgeous images and fantastic music. That is to say, Moana is an excellent new addition to the Disney canon.
One thousand years ago, Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a demigod in Polynesian mythology, stole the Heart of Te Fiti to allow humans the ability to create life. However, he was stopped by a Lava Monster, which forces him to drop both the Heart and his Magical Fish Hook. In the film’s present, Moana Waialiki (Auli’i Cravalho, a revelation), the daughter of the Chief of Motonui Island, is chosen by the Ocean itself to finally leave her home and travel across the sea to find Maui. Together with a brain-damaged rooster named Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk) the group must traverse the Ocean, find Te Fiti, restore her heart and save Moana’s people.
I think the first smart decision made on Disney’s part was the crew they brought on board for this. Considering Maui is supposedly the Creator of New Zealand, it seemed like a smart decision to bring in someone with New Zealand sensibilities. And if you know anything about me, you know exactly where I’m going with this. Yes, the movie feels like it has Flight of the Conchords’ fingerprints all over it. That may have something to do with the original script being written by Taika Waikiki. Waikiki’s script was eventually rewritten by Jared Bush, who does a decent (if predictable) job with it, but the acclaimed Conchords writer’s fingerprints are all over it, from the solid humor to the casting (which we will get to). So, while the plot devices feel like an amalgamation of lesser-acclaimed (but still great) Disney films (I saw echoes of The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, The Great Mouse Detective, Lilo and Stitch and Peter Pan just off the top of my head), they are peppered with unique and creative dialogue, making the characters stand out when the plot itself feels weak.
Meanwhile, this film is nothing without its music. It’s interesting to note that normal Disney songwriters Robert and Kristin Lopez were given temporary leave after taking the world by storm with Frozen, but Disney is no slouch. They hired actual South Pacific composer Opetaia Foa’I to write the music, while the lyrics were written by this young unknown named Lin-Manuel Miranda. All joking aside, Miranda’s songs in this film prove that Hamilton was no fluke (much in the same way that Hamilton proved In the Heights was no fluke). And sure, there’s no true “Let It Go” moment in this film the way there was in Frozen, but if I’m being honest, the body of songs in Moana may in fact be better than the body of songs in Frozen. And this is coming from someone who absolutely devoured Frozen. There were maybe two or three songs in 2013 that I could recite verbatim. I’m still singing every single song in Moana. They’re that fun. From the first real song in “Where You Are” (sung, of course, by members of the cast of Hamilton, including Christopher Jackson as Moana’s father) to the powerful “We Know the Way” to the absolutely joyful “You’re Welcome” (gleefully talk-sung/rapped by The Rock) to the Big Disney Number “How Far I’ll Go.” That’s the one that audiences will be singing for days and months to come. Unfortunately, Disney knows it, because the song appears not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times in the film. Look, “Let It Go” was great because it blew you away and then disappeared. Don’t let your songs overstay their welcome. And some of the music is so Lin-Manuel I managed to add in “I am Alexander Hamilton” every once in a while, just to see how trope-y Miranda’s music can get. But God, these songs are such a joy, I’m willing to overlook some of their missteps.
And of course, the voices. My God, this voice cast. This may actually be one of the best that Disney’s ever assembled. I’m dead serious. It hearkens back to the days of Beauty and the Beast, where most of the voice actors were unknowns with a couple of big names peppered in to liven things up. I should mention Dwayne Johnson first, both because he’s the biggest name in the cast and because he is absolutely phenomenal in the role. Johnson brings a joyful arrogance and lovability to his role. He lands the jokes perfectly, he surprisingly handles his big musical number perfectly well, and he feels alive in the animation. This may be because it is very clear Maui is inspired by The Rock-he’s literally introduced with a raised eyebrow, which I can’t read as anything but meta-but it also says a lot about his charisma. Johnson is a natural performer, who loves to entertain people as much as he loves people in general. Of course, as great as he is, he’s still overshadowed by an unknown fourteen-year old girl. This is a gutsy call, but I feel confident in making it: there may not be a more perfect voice-to-princess casting (while she’ll point out that she’s a “Chief’s Daughter,” Maui explains that “If you have curly hair and a cute animal sidekick, you’re automatically a Princess”) than Cravalho as Moana. That’s right: better than Caselotti, better than Costa, better than O’Hara, and even better than Benson. There are a lot of potential reasons for this proclamation: maybe it’s because Cravalho is actually the age of the princess she is playing, maybe it’s the fact that she plays the role as green-but-intelligent, preventing her from being perfect while allowing for her to learn from her mistakes to continue to be better, maybe it’s the fact that as an untrained professional her big song is just as powerfully sung as Elsa, Belle or Ariel before her, or maybe it’s just the writing. I don’t know what it is, but I do know that Moana isn’t just a lesser princess without Cravalho, she flat-out doesn’t work. I’m still amazed with her vocal work.
Johnson and Cravalho get the bulk of the voice work, as the majority of the film is these two riffing on each other. However, that doesn’t prevent smaller characters from sneaking in to steal the limelight. And unsurprisingly, they are both Kiwis brought on board when Waikiki was writing. The first is Rachel House as Gramma Tala, Moana’s wise and witty grandmother. It’s a role that we’ve seen in Disney movies before-really, there’s nothing to it that makes her different than the grandmother in Mulan or Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas. However, with House’s gentle voice and sharp comedic timing, she makes the most of the character, and is allowed to share in the film’s most emotional moment, to great effect. And yet, if there’s one character I’ve been rushing to talk about, it’s Jemaine Clement as Tamatoa. Tamatoa may not be the main villain of the film, but that doesn’t stop Clement from relishing in every moment he’s onscreen. He goes from gleeful to menacing to cocky all within seconds, chewing up each line with an immense fervor, and not only has the film’s absolute best scene, but also one of the best songs-“Shiny,” the first Villain Song since Tangled. Clement plays it as “Poor Unfortunate Souls” as sung in the same voice he uses on “Bowies In Space” for Conchords. It shouldn’t work, but somehow does, and how. It’s the perfect example of “Leave the audience wanting more,” and when Clement’s moment in the sun is over, it feels like he’s literally bowing for the applause before leaving. God, I loved him in this role.
I could go on about what makes this movie strong for another hundred words. I could talk about the characterization of the ocean as a living being, which is done sparingly and humorously. I could talk about the gorgeous animation, which-along with Frozen-very nearly justify the recent Disney trend towards CGI animation. I could talk about the fact that there’s a Mad Max: Fury Road homage thrown in for no logical reason, yet is hilariously perfect. Or I could take another hundred words and talk about the problems with the film-namely a series of plot holes and contrivances that border on Deus ex machina, which isn’t really a great thing when coupled with mostly predictable and clichéd plot beats. Frankly, I could go on and on about Moana, period. However, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to leave you with this: Moana is a Flight of the Conchords Disney movie where all the songs are written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. If that statement alone isn’t enough to convince you to see it, then you are a sad individual.