Disney has remained one step ahead of nearly every other studio this year, pumping out sure-fire hits like “Zootopia,” “The Jungle Book” and “Finding Dory.” Out of the three, “Zootopia” proved to be the biggest surprise among audiences, dealing out thoughtful messages about racial prejudice and other sociopolitical issues. For its holiday season release, Disney dives back into musical territory, recruiting veteran directors John Musker and Ron Clements (“The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”) to imbue the effort with the classical Disney magic we’ve held so dearly in our hearts over the years. If “Zootopia” was about who we are now, then “Moana” is about who we will always be: adventurers, explorers, and dreamers. Though it engages in traditional Disney fare, it bursts with colorful animation, well-drawn characters, a refined sense of culture and sweeping emotion, all enlivened by music (co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda) that stirs the soul.
Moana Waialiki (newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is on the cusp of becoming the first female chief of her village, having been raised by her father Tui (Temuera Morrison) to devote herself to the community so that they may prosper on their island for years to come. Just barely edging into adulthood, Moana craves adventure beyond the borders of her home, hoping to one day venture out into the ocean to find what she believes to be her true calling. Sure enough, the ocean itself chooses the bright young woman to embark on a journey to save her people when their cursed island comes under the threat of decay. She sails to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore the stone heart of an ancient island goddess - which he stole millennia ago - so that Moana's home may flourish once again.
From an animation standpoint, “Moana” is infinitely more captivating than “Zootopia,” creating a dynamic array of visuals, dominated by luminous blues and sun-kissed greens, that go above and beyond the modernistic touches of Disney’s earlier film. The most gorgeous sequence comes early on as we see a baby Moana discover the ocean, which comes to life and plays with the toddler. Those dreaming of warmer days during this chilly season will want to reach out and touch Moana’s aquamarine companion, which moves with a fluidity and energy not unlike that of Aladdin’s magic carpet. There are too many other sequences worthy of praise to fit into this review, but I wouldn’t dream of ruining them for you anyway.
With the Broadway smash “Hamilton,” and now “Moana,” 2016 has officially become the year of our Lin-Manuel Miranda. The talented musician, working with Opetaia Foa'i, imbues every song with the contemporary pop feel we’ve come to expect from musicals today, but unlike the music of “Frozen” (ruined by radio overplay), each number, catchy as they may be, ultimately serves story and character, though a few characters acknowledge breaking into song with a wink of an eye at the audience (I guess we have “Deadpool” to thank for every meta blockbuster nowadays). While I might have appreciated “Moana” more without its self-aware determination to skewer genre convention, the film still succeeds on its ability to inspire the purest of emotions through song. My favorite tune by far comes when Moana has a vision of her ancestors voyaging across the sea, discovering new islands. It’s almost as powerful as anything from “The Lion King.”
As good as Miranda proves himself to be once again, the real discovery here is Auli’i Cravalho. Only 16 years old, the new actress projects a confidence an intellect beyond her years as Moana, but she’s also quite spunky and good with comedic timing. Opposite her is Johnson, a natural with self-absorbed, charismatic characters. Maui gets a few one-liners, but they are nothing compared to his more visually oriented gags, as well as a whimsical introductory song that gave me incredible déjà vu of the Genie’s “Friend Like Me.” Johnson also handles Maui’s more somber moments fairly well, balancing out the demigod’s sillier sensibilities.
I’ve often found Disney to be at its best when it takes audiences to places that seem almost otherworldly yet so inherently human; places that exist beyond the realm of white princesses and anthropomorphic animals. “Moana,” rooted in Polynesian culture, is certainly no exception, as it engages American audiences into a wholly unique mythology as resonant as others found in any other globetrotting Disney flick. I would say that the film has only “Kubo and the Two Strings” to beat out for best animated film of the year, but since I’ve been hearing Miranda’s enchanting music in my head nonstop and dreaming of crystal clear seas, I’m pretty certain I know who the real winner is.