I doubt that anyone is as interested in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ foray into computer generated animation as I am. Back in the early 2000, Pixar was the main producer of CGI films for Disney. However, in 2004, it looked like Pixar was going to go off on its own and the in house animators tried their hand at CGI fare. The result was the disappointing Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons. Disney soon brought out Pixar outright in a move that smelled of outright panic. Pixar CEO John Lassiter became head of all of Disney animation output, and its in-house, non-Pixar films improved, starting with Bolt and ending with last year’s Zootopia. The years of work have culminated in the imprint’s best movie yet, the beautiful and moving Moana.
A demigod named Maui stole the Heart of Te Fiti with the purpose of giving it to humans so they create life. The plan backfires and Maui loses both the heart and his magical hook in the ocean before being exiled. Years later, Moana finds that her island is starting to die off–there are no fish left in the reef and fruit goes rotten on the vine. She soon discovers a solution that she is called up to make happen–reunite Te Fiti with her heart. But she need’s Maui’s help, and he is not in a helpful mood. On the surface, the plot is your typical “girl pursues her destiny against her father’s wishes” story, but its a really good one. This is mainly because Moana, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, is a well-defined, likable character. She is rebellious without ever being snotty, determined without ever being obnoxious and optimistic without ever being overbearing. She is self-reliant and smart. She is not without flaws, but know what they are and works to overcome them. She’s a wonderful role model for young girls, and a stronger character than most living actresses get to play.
And since Moana is so accessible and easy to root for, all the work the animators do pays off. From the stunning vistas that make up the scenery to the dumb as a rock chicken that is comic relief to the tattoos on Maui that mock and/or encourage him, there is no wrong step in the film. Everything works and everything fits to create and immersive experience. And if you let yourself go, you’ll come to love the movie just like I did.
Dwayne Johnson also does great vocal work here. Maui is only a few shades removed from The Rock (they even share a raised eyebrow as a trademark), which helps, but Johnson does well adding a sense of humanity to a larger than life character. And he even sings! And does it quite well too!
Although, in all fairness, that might have more to do with the quality of the songs than the quality of his voice. The songs are written by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda and they are absolutely fantastic. Song for song, this is the best Disney soundtrack since Beauty and the Beast. The songs are powerful, moving and help tell the story. They will stay with you well after you leave the theater.
Moana is a great film in just about every way a film can be great. With this film, we might have seen a shift in the Disney dynamic. As Pixar remains stuck in sequel-land (Cars 3, coming next year!) until 2020 with Coco, opening in November of next year the sole original film, Walt Disney Animation Studios has become the place to go for high quality CGI films. And Moana proves that they most likely will excel in anything they have to offer.