Much has been made of Disney’s hot streak in 2016. They’ve already had hits with “Zootopia;” “The Jungle Book;” “Captain America: Civil War;” “Finding Dory;” and “Doctor Strange,” plus “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is set to dominate the Christmas box office. Now here comes “Moana,” and it’s the best one yet.
What puts the film over the top is its incredible main character. I could compliment Moana all day for being “strong,” “smart,” “brave,” “independent” and so on. But honestly, this isn’t anything new for Disney. They realized a long time ago that they were synonymous with vapid cutesy princesses, and for decades they’ve been writing female characters with the intention of bucking that stereotype. In fact, I might dare say they’ve been overcompensating, going so far as to name an entire movie after one of those basic admirable qualities (“Brave”).
Don’t get me wrong, Moana is strong and independent and all of those things. But there’s another word that perfectly describes Moana: Moana. Voice actress Auli’i Cravalho, in conjunction with the film’s writers and animators, genuinely conveys that the character’s thoughts, opinions, words, and actions are all her own. There’s a scene in this movie where she gets mad at the ocean and yells “Hey! What?” This rhetorical cry could have easily been filler, but she brings such attitude to the line, you’ll think the ocean owes her an answer.
Moana goes on an adventure to save her family’s island in the Pacific when its resources start to dwindle. The island has been cursed as a result of some confusing mythology. She needs to find the deposed demigod Maui, help him recover his magical hook, and help him restore a lost treasure to its rightful place. She finds Maui only to discover that he’s not too keen on the mission. He’s quick to brag about all the favors he’s done for humanity in the past, but he thinks he’s done everything he needs to do. Maui is voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and yes, the movie gives us the Dwayne Johnson musical number you didn’t know you needed.
Speaking of musical numbers, this movie has one of those soundtracks that is going to endure for years and years. There’s “You’re Welcome,” the catchy Dwayne Johnson boast piece. “Shiny” is a decent villain song from a greedy giant hermit crab (Jemaine Clement). “We Know the Way” is a breezy ode to voyaging, sung non-digitally by Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton.” Then there’s a song sung by Moana called “How Far I’ll Go.” If you’re a parent, the good news is that this song will make your kids forget all about that other Disney song with the word “Go” in the title. The other good news is that it’s an excellent song, rousing and empowering and making you appreciate Cravalho as Moana even more. But the bad news is that by the thousandth time, you’ll be wishing it was forgettable.
Other scene-stealing elements that warrant a quick mention include Moana’s dotty grandmother (Rachel House) who’s secretly the smartest person on the island, her dimwitted pet chicken who gets a laugh every time he shows up on screen, Maui’s sentient body tattoos, the ocean itself being a character, and adorable coconut pirates who might be Disney’s attempt to hone in on the Minions market. There’s awesome stuff everywhere you look in this movie. My quibbles are minor: the film goes a little too heavy on the Pacific mythology; Moana and Maui’s “odd couple forced to travel together” act seems a tad tired; and I could have done without a lame pandering joke when we first meet Maui. But all those things are easily forgiven within the first few notes of “How Far I’ll Go.” I’d like to thank the team behind “Moana” for putting out another Disney animated classic, and although Moana is the best character in this movie, something tells me Maui will be the first to say “You’re Welcome.”
Reach Bob Garver at firstname.lastname@example.org.