Review: ‘Moana’ Destined for Greatness in Disney’s Second Renaissance

"Moana" (2016) - Movie Review

‘Moana’ Reigns with ‘Frozen’ as Next Disney Animated Classic

Disney knows exactly what they’re doing with their princess brand. Classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty worked for that time. In every case, there was always a damsel in distress and a prince to the rescue. Nowadays, the formulaic girl power found in Tangled and Frozen, moves seamlessly to the rhythm of contemporary times. The studio’s 56th feature film, Moana, is surely no different. In fact, Disney is out to shatter even more glass ceilings.

Set in ancient Polynesia, a teenage princess named Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is bound to her people as the next in line to rule the tropical island of Motunui. Despite her father’s wishes to mold her into the next chief, Moana finds herself drawn to the ocean. She hopes one day to sail beyond her reefs and explore the unknown waters. When coconuts start dying and fish becomes a rarity, Moana takes it upon herself to venture out into open water. Her grandmother insists the only way Motunui will return to normal is if, the demi-god Maui is found and a precious stone is restored to an island goddess.

Moana is a triumphant film, hinging on a unforgettable date with destiny. The film opens at the methodical pace with no real sense of urgency. Instead, Moana finds herself in an internal struggle between duty and desire. Out of the gate, Cravalho shines in her first role. We genuinely feel what her character is going through. But in typical Disney fashion, leave it to song with “Where You Are” and a montage to pull our main character in a personal tug-of-war.

But it’s not until the pivotal song, “How Far I’ll Go,” that releases Moana on her epic journey with no turning back. Just like “Let It Go” was to Frozen, “How Far I’ll Go” is the game-changer for this film. The lineup of songs is some of Disney’s best in years thanks to the collaborative efforts of Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. Yes, this is a soundtrack worth revisiting again and again.

SEE ALSO: Moana Review: A Well-Crafted Animated Ode to Polynesian Culture

With the introduction of arrogant demi-god, Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), Moana quickly turns into a road trip featuring an unlikely duo. We’ve seen this recently in Disney’s Tangled, Frozen and even this year’s Zootopia. And if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Cravalho and Johnson have impeccable chemistry together. In recent years, Johnson has strayed away from family films, going full throttle action star like in Furious 7. Here, he’s fabulous as Maui. Even from his introduction as a self-absorbed hero, he’s still a pretty lovable tough guy. Comedic too. Though some of the beats are played off an idiot rooster. He can take all the credit for raising islands and introducing coconuts (once again in song). Shocker. But at the end of the day, he’s another fine addition to the Disney universe.

While the voice acting is superb all around, the visuals are equally impressive. With every film, the animation at Disney continues to become more and more lifelike. Frozen and Zootopia both managed to break new ground in the visual department. Then came Moana. From character design to vivid details of water, the animation is an instant draw that wows at every turn. Earlier this year, Kubo and the Two Strings pushed the envelope of stop-motion. Moana is doing exactly the same for computer animation.

Hands down, Moana is the family event of the holidays and possibly the year. Though, we do have a film that doesn’t transcend a new generation of ideas. The only highlight is Moana might actually be the first Disney princess since Mulan not searching for true love. Independence and empowerment are gladly flowing through the film’s veins. It’s not enough of a risky endeavor like Zootopia was earlier in the year for Disney. Playing it safe has worked many times before for the studio. Look how that turned Frozen and Star Wars: The Force Awakens into recent cultural phenomenons.

It seems like repetition to say that Disney has done it again in this second Renaissance. Truth be told, Moana is yet another crowning achievement for Disney the likes that will even rival Frozen. We’re witnessing a modern-day classic that will be loved by generations young and old. 2016 has been one of the richest years for animation in a very long time and it’s going out with a bang.

Written by
Matt Marshall has been reviewing films since 2003, starting with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." He specializes in home media, including 4K UHD, Blu-ray as well as box office analysis. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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