Moana is ’easily the finest looking Disney animated feature in years’ but does it live up to the hype, asks MacDara Conroy
There is nothing new under the sun, and never has that been more true than for Disney’s current output. With the prospect of yet more sequels and unnecessary reboots — to Wreck-It Ralph, Cars, and the imminent live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast — not to mention a new Star Wars series mired in nostalgia, it’s the likes of this summer’s Zootopia and now Moana, productions from the traditional Walt Disney arm in Los Angeles as opposed to the lauded Pixar studio up north, which stand out as original, standalone works, and a breath of fresh air in that regard.
Yet even in the case of the latter, we’re still dealing with a rote Disney musical on paper. Take a free-spirited protagonist who rankles at the constraints of the world around them, sent on a quest of some kind — by their own free will or other circumstances — to find themselves and gain the respect of elders and peers, and there’s your plot sorted right there. The Lion King and Mulan are the most obvious touchstones, but it’s also in The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, the aforementioned Beauty and the Beast, even Frozen — all the big successes. So it’s to be expected that Disney keep going back to that well, even if it means there’s little that’s novel to the story at hand, as much as it explores the riches of Polynesian mythology.
That brings up another point: that despite the novelty of the Pacific setting, Moana’s ethnic heroine is also nothing new for Disney, after The Princess and the Frog, Mulan and Pocahontas blazed that trail. If anything, she plays second fiddle to the exaggerated frame of her demigod companion, an anti-hero archetype whom she ropes in to challenge the demon that’s cursed her island home. His redemptive arc too often overshadows her own coming-of-age parable as the story unfurls, to the point where it’s easy to forget why they’re on their quest in the first place. It’s lazy storytelling, and the writers’ self-awareness (there’s a very meta bit commenting on Moana as a princess) doesn’t get Disney a pass.
So what exactly does Moana bring to the table? Its biggest selling points, never mind the titular protagonist (voiced by Hawaiian actor/singer Auli’i Cravalho), are that it stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as that hulking Polynesian deity, Maui (the pronunciation of which weirdly changes as the film goes on), and that the bulk of its songs are by current Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. Neither of these, alas, is worth all that much.
Without the chiseled looks and arched eyebrow, Johnson loses much of his natural charisma as a disembodied voice, and doesn’t even really sound like himself. (Yes, he sings, but the Autotune assistance is conspicuous.) Miranda’s songs, meanwhile, are stock modern Broadway balladry, missing the connection to the environment that’s so strong in the few tunes by Opetaia Foa’i of the Pacific islands fusion group Te Vaka, sung in the Tokelauan language and using indigenous instrumentation. It’s an annoying trait of latter-day Disney, to undercut their careful world-building with generic, anachronistic music, though most won’t notice or care. (An exception can be made for the mid-film cabaret number sung by Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement as a giant jewel-encrusted crab, though it’s still disjoined from the movie around it.)
What really sets Moana apart are the visuals. The animation is often breathtaking, from the lushness of Moana’s island idyll to the roar and calm of the ocean, the fine textures of hair and water spray, and a bold colour palette and overall design sense that shows the animators were truly inspired by the culture some will argue they’ve appropriated. It’s easily the finest looking Disney animated feature in years, and worth a watch for that alone, though that’s bound to get lost in the hype. And besides, with the likes of DreamWorks’ impressive Kung Fu Panda series to content with, it’s the least they could have done.