Isn’t it great that Disney are back on form? When I was growing up, they had turned into a bit of a joke. After all, one of their big films in that period when I was in the target audience was Chicken Little. So to see them bounce back with some of the best films they have ever done like Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen has been a delight and I do envy all the children who get to grow up with these Disney classics rather than Home on the Range. But can Disney continue this golden streak of great films with Moana?
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho, First Feature Film) is the daughter of the village chief but while she knows she needs to be ready to be the new leader of the island, she also wants to leave and explore on the high season, something which is expressly forbidden. However when darkness starts to spread to the island, she finally leaves to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, Fast & Furious 6) who is said to be the only one who can stop it.
So firstly we have to talk about the exquisite animation. It’s beautiful. Jaw dropping even. The islands look like paradise in a nutshell and until the darkness starts to make it’s presence known, you do wonder why on earth Moana would want to leave as what would be better than this? The sea is a beautiful shade of blue and the islands do pop with colour. Now this could get a bit tiring to look at, as a lot of the film is just Moana and Maui on a boat, but the film mixes up it’s settings to make sure you are constantly surprised. During a song in the realm of monsters by Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement, What We Do In The Shadows), the animation flips completely and once again, it is just stunning to look at.
But you can’t just rely on beautiful animation, you need to deliver a solid plot too and the film does that. If we pare the movie down to it’s most basic elements, it is a road trip movie as Moana and Maui clash before reaching their goal. Moana is on a quest to save the world and find out who she is, while Maui is rather selfish and only really cares about getting his mystical hook back. It makes for some good lines and comedy thanks to the lively script as well as the good chemistry that both Auli’l Cravalhlo and Dwayne Johnson have, which is impressive considering they probably didn’t meet each other until the film was in the can.
And the film is constantly funny as well. Credit has to be given to Dwayne Johnson for adding so much charisma and humanity to Maui, as in the hands of a lesser man he could have come off as very unlikable. Especially as he essentially tries to Moana on at least four different occasions. Of course Moana gets her own moments as well, mainly because she is such a lively character and someone you just enjoy watching, though the laughs usually come from Maui, and even when Moana does get the laughs it is usually involved with mocking Maui. Also Heihei the chicken (Akan Tudyk, I, Robot) is great.
But it wouldn’t be a Disney film without it’s songs and they have a good bunch of them here. At first, they may not seem that spectacular. Okay, the reprise of ‘How Far It Goes’ just as the third act starts is pretty amazing and one of those moments that gets your hair standing on end, but the rest seem to be fairly forgettable. But just wait because these are earworms that won’t let you go for weeks on end. You will be singing the chorus of How Far It Goes, You’re Welcome and Shiny for weeks on end and on rewatches, the music becomes even better. How Far It Goes has a unique structure which shows it isn’t just a Let It Go clone, You’re Welcome is a very catchy tune which makes Dwayne Johnson seem like a good singer (His talent is unfair to the rest of us) while Shiny is a David Bowie-esque villain track, the only thing that Frozen was missing. And while We Know The Way is more serviceable then anything else, it is unique for being in the Tokelauan language. That’s only spoken by 3,000 people by the way, so it’s great to listen to as more than ever, it feels like Disney is really paying tribute to the culture it is basing a film off.
But there is one problem, and rather coincidentally it is the same problem that afflicted Doctor Strange in my last review. The film is a success due to a formula, and one we’ve seen a few times now. You have a ‘princess’ who is much more active in the story, something which should stay, but the main arc is mostly the bland quest to find who she is, or more specifically, ‘more’. Then there’s no traditional villain, the song Shiny I mentioned before is sung by a sub-villain who is defeated in ten minutes, and there is a lot of barbs thrown at the old Disney films which are of their time rather than the progressive attitudes we have now. And don’t get me wrong, this formula has made some great films but it is starting to get noticeable. It is starting to feel a bit mean-hearted to pick on the older Disney films, which are still great in their own right, and we don’t really need to point out that’s she’s not really a princess like in the other films – which we know is going to be hypocritical as she’ll be added to the Disney princess line up soon enough. I do fear this could be a formula that gets very tired over the next few years.
But even with that formula, and maybe because of it, Moana is still a delight. It has a great cast of characters who are all developed and great to be around, a range of catchy songs and some of the best animation that Disney has ever done. Yes, that formula is something that we need to watch out for the future as it is starting to become noticeable but that doesn’t stop this from being one of the best kids films to be released over the last year or two, though not the best Disney film of 2016 thanks to Zootopia. But still, go see it because the Disney golden streak is still going for now.