Ever since John Lasseter became a key figure at Walt Disney Animation, things have run a certain way behind the scenes. Not only does every project take multiple years to make -- never rushed to meet a particular release date or beat potential competition -- but stories are put through a rigorous and thorough build-up and break-down process that has everyone involved sure that the material moving forward and being animated is up to a particular standard. As Disney Animation is in the midst of one of its most successful eras ever, making instant classics like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and Zootopia, it's clear that (surprise, surprise) the time and effort put in leads to incredible results... and now they've struck again with the spellbinding, beautiful, and inspiring Moana.
The 56th release from the studio, and the first digitally animated feature from Little Mermaid and Aladdin directors Ron Clements and John Musker, Moana is built in the classic tradition of Disney -- following an empowered young female protagonist and she sings and fights her way through adversity -- but comes together as something unique and special. Beyond being a beautiful piece of art filled with charismatic characters and stunning music, it's a wonderful and culturally-inspired fairy tale that captivates and thrills while shining the spotlight on a mythos rarely explored by Hollywood.
Brought to life by stunning newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, the eponymous Moana is the daughter of the chief on Motunui Island, and while she has spent her entire life feeling the ocean calling to her (sometimes literally), her parents have long forbade any journey beyond the reef. This all begins to change, however, when the natural resources of the island begin to die, and Moana realizes that she can't follow the rules anymore. Believing that the answer lies in the stories told to her by her grandmother (Rachel House), and learning of her tribe's long history as navigators, the titular heroine takes to the sea with exactly one purpose in mind: to find the shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and force him to return the legendary Heart of Te Fiti back to from where he once stole it.
Structurally, it's a very simple story that puts a lot on the relationship between Moana and Maui... but this ultimately winds up being one of the film's greatest strengths, as their individual arcs are not only fully fleshed out and meaningful, but they play off each other magnificently. It's hard not to instantly fall in love with the headstrong Moana, and her crises of confidence in the face of serious pressure and adversity is emotionally palpable -- particularly when she finds the strength of will to overcome. Playing the contrast with the perfectly-cast Dwayne Johnson as the voice, Maui's charisma comes from his amazing strength and self-assurance, but that naturally comes packaged with flaws like an inflated ego and a touch of praise addiction. Together they make a magnificently engaging duo, and the film gives them rich, full stories from beginning to end.
As though it weren't enough to have the talents already mentioned, however, Moana also happens to have the brilliant team of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'I, and Mark Mancina taking care of the music -- creating a soundtrack that is simply an endless stream of delightful and inspiring songs with a completely distinct sound and feel. Gifted the beautiful and stunning voice of Auli'i Cravalho (this is seriously not to be understated), the entire movie is filled with tracks that will both make you heartily laugh -- particularly the Jemaine Clement-sung "Shiny" -- and make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. The theme "How Far I'll Go" stands every chance to be seen as the new "Let It Go."
Rounding out Moana as a true triple-threat is the simple elegance and beauty of the animation -- which, if I'm being perfectly honest, is just expected every time out when it comes to the work of Disney's studio. The technology employed has gotten us to a point where it feels like you can get a tan from the sunlight and wet from the waves, and even in the moments of intensity and terror -- such as when our heroes face off against a giant lava monster -- you can't help but appreciate the powerful splendor of the world the story captures. This absolutely extends to the character design as well, as there's an endless number of wonderful stylistic flourishes, from Maui's often-irreverent living tattoos, to the epic mythical creatures.
Moana is the result of five years of work behind the scenes, and it's work that shows brilliantly. Even the movies flaws (like an overabundance of cute side characters) find ways to balance themselves out (they're all legitimately adorable and hilarious), and by the end you're just going to walk out of the theater feeling uplifted, and more than likely humming a tune.
Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.