So, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them was a big disappointment. Would Disney Animation Studios’ latest film, Moana, live up to expectations? Short answer: yes.
Like all Disney films these days, this one is preceded by a short: Inner Workings, which is like a shortened version of Inside Out, but with organs instead of emotions. Then we get to the film itself, set in Polynesia: our heroine Moana is the chief’s daughter – and future chief herself – on an island which nobody is allowed to leave for fear of the dangers beyond. According to legend, a darkness began spreading across the world after the demigod Maui stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti – and eventually, that darkness arrives on Moana’s island, leaving her people in danger of starvation. Having been blessed by the ocean itself as a child, Moana sets out in a boat to find Maui, recover the magic fishhook that he lost, and then deliver him to Te Fiti so he can restore the heart.
Moana is essentially a quest story, and a very good one. There are monsters and pirates to confront, and the other challenges that come with navigating the open sea – even if the sentient ocean has chosen Moana, it doesn’t help her with every little thing. Many things in the film feel familiar – for example, Moana’s father singing to her about her responsibilities, before Moana herself sings about what she really wants, brings to mind Pocahontas – yet with its own story, environment, character motivations and fresh emotional power, this film is definitely still doing its own thing rather than replicating what came before.
Once Moana actually finds Maui, the rest of the film is just the two of them on their quest together – apart from a brainless chicken who irritated me more than anything else; I would have preferred if Moana took her pig instead. Fortunately, not only do Moana and Maui’s interactions have plenty of humour and heart, but they’re both great characters on their own. Moana is very capable in a lot of ways – she’s certainly got more muscle than the average Disney princess – but she doesn’t know everything right off the bat and needs to take time to learn. She has a strong sense of responsibility – we see her actively practicing how to be a chief at the beginning of the film – which seems to conflict with her desire to get out into the sea, until she must do so to save her people. And her being the “chosen one” isn’t necessarily simple; she experiences doubt and struggles to understand exactly what it means. Maui, meanwhile – based on an actual world-building figure in Polynesian mythology – is incredibly charismatic in spite of his arrogance, and I really loved the voice work for him by Dwayne Johnson.
The Polynesian setting and the exquisite 3D animation combine to make this film absolutely gorgeous, with the beautiful islands and realistically-animated water making you wish you were there. I think I enjoyed this film all the more having recently been to the Philippines, as such things as the scenery, the dancing and the design of the boats felt happily familiar. There’s a particularly good scene where Moana and Maui descend into the underwater Realm of Monsters; the scale of everything around them, combined with the underwater sound effects and the noises of strange creatures, makes it very immersive, like a Disney World attraction.
After Big Hero 6 and Zootropolis decided to do without songs, Moana goes back down the musical route of Tangled, Frozen and the familiar films of the Disney Renaissance. Happily, the songs are all brilliant, and I had them stuck in my head for most of the next day: there’s ‘How Far I’ll Go’, Moana’s powerful ‘I Want’ song; ‘We Know The Way’, which looks back at the voyaging of Moana’s ancestors while making use of traditional Polynesian music; ‘You’re Welcome’, Maui’s painfully catchy introductory song and probably my favourite; and ‘Shiny’, sung by the giant crab Tamatoa in the Realm of Monsters, technically the film’s villain song though he only appears in this one scene.
Compared with other recent Disney movies, Moana is better than Wreck-It Ralph or Big Hero 6, and about on par with Tangled. Its story and themes aren’t quite as special and outstanding as those of Frozen or Zootropolis, but it still provides just about everything you could want in a family film. With Disney movies these days, it seems quality is guaranteed even when Pixar isn’t involved! Rating: 4/5.