Here’s the problem with watching animated and kids’ films as a relatively new father — I find myself reviewing a film perhaps less as an objective critic and more based on whether or not my kid enjoyed it. There’s a certain validity to that, sure — if a film is aimed squarely at the wee ones, does a critic do you any service by commenting on direction and editing when the children are clearly going wild for it? On the other hand, a bad movie is a bad movie, and it’s certainly true that kids like some truly awful stuff — how else does one explain the existence of the abominable “Caillou”?
The good news is, there’s no such conflict when it comes to Moana, Disney’s newest super-project. It’s powered by so much incredible acumen that it should outshine the sun — directed by John Musker and Ron Clements (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid), screenplay by Jared Bush (Big Hero 6, Zootopia, songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, music by Grammy award-winning Pacific Island musician Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina (who’s worked on what seems like every movie of the past 35 years), and with voice acting from the likes of Dwayne Johnson and Jemaine Clement. It’s like a how-to manual for successful animated pictures, and it takes all of that star power and creates something utterly wonderful, a charming, fantastically imaginative story about self-reliance, family, gods and monsters, the beauty within us all, and the wonders of exploration and discovery. Goddamn, this is a good movie.
It’s the story of Moana (16 year-old newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), a young girl destined to become the leader of her island people, who yearns for more than just island life, but to see what wonders the ocean holds. Banned from exploring beyond their reef by a centuries old superstition, Moana thinks the solutions to her people’s plights of failing crops and depleted fishing lies far and away, and eventually endeavors to brashly and boldly go to find the demigod Maui (Johnson), who once was a benefactor to her people until he stole a precious artifact — the heart of the goddess Te Fiti — causing the birth of the fire monster Te Ka, the loss of Maui’s magical fishhook, and the curse upon Moana’s people.
That’s everything you really need to get started, because it’s absolutely worth you discovering the rich and lush story along with Moana and Maui, an unlikely duo with dueling agendas that, unbeknownst to them, point them down the same path. Their friendship is a difficult and complex one, full of twists and turns, bitterness and hope and love. Moana is everything you want in a female hero. Gone are almost all of the Disney princess tropes — she’s strong and self-reliant, stubborn to the point of bullheaded, curious and precocious. Much like Brave, typical body types were abandoned in favor of a design that feels warm and strong and human. There is, refreshingly, zero elements of romance — it’s a non-factor that’s never even alluded to. Instead, Moana doesn’t need a man to save her, she needs herself, and it’s only through this marvelous hero’s journey that she finds herself, finds who she is and who she’s meant to be (as marvelously shown in the terrific solo song “How Far I’ll Go”). Similarly, Maui is brash and arrogant, but with a good heart and good — if misguided — intentions, and it’s only through his journey with Moana that he can truly learn his purpose.
And then there’s the music. Richly textured with a diverse array of instrumentation and song types, the songs are gorgeous. Drenched in culture and rhythm and heart, they’re some of the best Disney has ever given us. Of course, this is also largely due to the lyricism of Miranda, who brings all of the heartbreaking and joy-making wonder that made Hamilton the juggernaut that it is. When combined with the well-written script, terrific dialogue, and amazing voice acting, some of these songs will destroy you. The only reason I felt OK when tears leaked from my eyes during some of the film’s more emotional musical beats is because the grown woman next to me was straight-up weeping. The soundtrack is available now on Spotify and everywhere else, but I highly recommend seeing the film first, because it will pack that much more of an emotional punch. I will just say that Jemaine Clement, as a gigantic villainous crab, steals the show with the spectacular “Shiny”, and that Cravalho is nothing short of pure beauty.
Have I gushed enough? I could go on. I could tell you that the film deserves nothing but praise for its cultural sensitivity and history, for giving an honest voice to a part of the world that has often been either neglected or stereotyped. I could tell you the joy in discovering that the voice cast is littered with everyone from Christopher Jackson to former NFL star Troy Polamalu. I could tell you that my four and a half year-old son was utterly entranced, gasping and laughing and wiggling and dancing in his seat. It’s the rare film that I really can’t find anything substantive to criticize. It’s a work of wonder, so get off your ass and go see it. Let it be a brief but brilliant light in this year’s darkness.