“One thing worth remembering is that an alright Disney movie is still something that most other American animated films can only aspire to be.”
by Ken Bakely
One thing worth remembering is that an alright Disney movie is still something that most other American animated films can only aspire to be. Moana, hardly as solid or engaging as the true classics from the studio, is still a deeply admirable effort, featuring top-line visuals, a strong cast, and nice music. Does it feel like a cop-out to quantify the most well known Western animation studio as the one most consistently churning out quality projects? Maybe to some, but it’s a defendable argument. There is a clear formula to movies like these, and the directors of the film – Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker – are more than familiar with it. But it’s a winning, tested, and welcome formula.
In the deep blue recesses of the Pacific Ocean, there is an island called Motunui. It’s small, but there’s a close-knit community living there, and their ancestors have made their home on this isolated tropical location for centuries. The island chief, a hardy man named Tui (voice of Temuera Jackson), has been gradually preparing his adolescent daughter Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) for the leadership role she will someday inherit. Yet much to his dismay, she is ambivalent about this future, and longs to venture beyond the shores of Motunui and explore the world around her. When an agricultural blight strikes the island, causing a significant shortage in vegetation, Moana’s desire to journey grows stronger.
Legend states that the people of Motunui were once great voyagers, but their adventurous desires were crushed when Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson), a mischievous demigod, stole a magical stone from the possession of a vengeful goddess and upended the natural order. Moana realizes that recovering and returning the stone will re-awaken the seafaring abilities of her fellow villagers, and allow them to search the ocean for a new home. The journey will be long, dangerous, and challenging, but she knows it is something that has to be done. In the process, she will discover her own strength and secure a future for the Motunui people.
Watching Moana, you know that you’re viewing a movie made by people who unquestionably know what they’re doing. It hits the right notes, all in sequence, but it never feels processed or overly market tested. When “How Far I’ll Go,” the stirring anthem in the first act penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, expands on Moana’s deep urge to explore her potential, you realize that this is something created in the vein of so many other great “I want” songs from Disney movies. Not only does it serve the purpose of the story at the moment, it has a robustness and clarity which gives it meaning beyond the immediate context of the film. This is to Miranda’s credit, yes, but it’s also relevant to the standards to which the movie holds itself.
This is all encompassed in saying that there’s a warming effect all throughout Moana. The script plays on both the expectations of older viewers and the sense of wonderment that younger kids will have with the movie. There’s a universality to the appeal of the gorgeous animation – from some of the most realistic and extensive depictions of water ever rendered in CGI, to the vast scale of the climactic battle scenes which pepper the start and finish. But the story also draws on a palatability toward budding minds that becomes wistful and affirmative to everyone else. (To follow the “budding minds” analogy, that would make us… “hard-headed”). Whereas many other movies aimed at children will seem endlessly numbing to anyone older than its target audience, this one finds the ageless appeal in its message and carries it forward. It’s entertainment for the masses, but never reduced beyond reason — uplifting, delicately complex, and keen all the same.