Disney’s animation studio has followed its 2013 smash-hit, Frozen, with this gorgeously animated tale of Polynesian legends, the moods of the ocean, and the journey of its titular heroine as she braves the waves to return a sacred relic to its origin and save her island home and the people she will someday lead.
Moana is steeped in the lore of the island people, brought to vibrant life by Ron Clements and John Musker in extensive nods both to tribal mythologies and the film’s roots as a Disney animated classic. Using the story of Maui, the demi-god antihero of several Polynesian nations as a framework for Moana’s heroic voyage, the story’s backbone is the heroine herself, as she learns to find the voice inside that tells her who she is – and why she alone can rescue her people from the disease and decay threatening her tribe on Motunui by convincing Maui to return the stolen heart of the island-goddess Te-fiti.
Along the way, we are treated to some of the most luscious animation the studio has produced in recent years, blending sweeping shots of glowing turquoise ocean waters with the intricately hand-animated hijinks of Maui’s anthropomorphic tattoos, and many wonders in between. A technicolor Tartarus, which has the look and feel of a deep alien sea, features the neon dazzle of the great Tamatoa – an enormous crab whose love for shiny objects has incited him to steal Maui’s magic fish-hook, which gives him his abilities to shapeshift. Moana’s spiritual connection to her grandmother, illustrated by a huge glowing stingray shape which beautifully morphs into Grandma Tala, guides her to her deepest revelation – and floats the hope she needs to remember her promise to her duty.
Between the simply breathtaking animation and the perfectly chosen voice cast, Moana pays joyful homages to several past Disney animated features, as well. Jemaine Clement’s performance, coupled with Tamatoa’s fluid animation, calls to mind the sneaky sea-witch Ursula in The Little Mermaid as he writhes and sings about his love for bling. The deep expanse of stars spilling across the heavens to guide Moana to Maui’s abandoned island recalls the blanket of great kings leading Simba to his own destiny. And, perhaps most impressively, the great lava demon guarding the island of Te-Fiti, Te Kā, is a living hell-golem of Earth and Fire, so reminiscent of Fantasia’s Chernabog it feels like a visual love letter to Bill Tytla.
Although a bit slow to really get into the heart of the action, Moana paces itself with confidence, and a beautiful score – despite a few songs which feel extraneous and unnecessary, it flows easily enough, and is such a feast for the eyes that one is happy enough to drift along until the sea spirits the story to where it should be. The easy banter and genuine chemistry between the characters of Moana and Maui, read brilliantly by Auliʻi Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, make any scene involving the two as they build a friendship from an antagonistic start truly fantastic.
Walt Disney allegedly held a deep respect for Polynesian cultures and their stories, and a deep desire to bring these stories alive through his work. He would be thoroughly enchanted with Moana, and if there is a higher honor out there for an animated film, it must lie far across the ocean.
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