"Moana" Adds Up To An Irresistible, Surefire Smash

Forget “Frozen.” Give “Zootopia” the week off. The Polynesian-themed “Moana” stands tall above the past twenty years of output from Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS), at long last wresting the Disney animation crown back from sister studio Pixar.

November 1995. Pixar blows into town with effervescent classic “Toy Story.” The studio’s wins turn into a streak, and then a juggernaut. WDAS, like a once sanctified first-born, is unceremoniously tossed aside for the world’s cutest baby. But twenty-one years later, Pixar has made a habit of uninspired sequels while WDAS has built up a head of steam. That head becomes a full charge in “Moana,” a movie that might be their best since 1994’s “The Lion King.” It brings together verdant visuals, wryly rousing songs, and a streamlined narrative that all coalesce into an irresistible, surefire smash.

Newbie Auli’i Cravalho ably voices the title character, a young islander with a deep connection to the ocean and dreams of far away lands, colorful creatures, and mischievous demigods. Against the wishes of her overprotective father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), Moana begins exploring the waters around their remote island. At first she justifies the excursions as fishing trips, but then a discovery of her ancestors’ legacy as explorers sets a fire in her. At the urging of her dying grandmother (Rachel House), Moana sets sail for Maui with her pet bug-eyed chicken in tow. She’ll return an ancient gem (the heart of Te Fiti) to its rightful place and restore order to the world at large.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson turns in a lovely voice performance as trickster demigod Maui, initially getting in Moana’s way but eventually providing her back up. His sprawling tattoos end up a character of their own, making for some great sight gags and storytelling quirks.

But it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda – creator of Broadway blockbuster Hamilton – who proves the film’s MVP. His songs – co-written by Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina – are almost all knockouts, with “How Far I’ll Go” and “You’re Welcome” ready to go down among Disney’s best. They’re predictably wordy, occasionally dense, but always hooky and memorable. The movie flies whenever its characters are singing, each song furthering the story and expanding upon the screenplay’s themes of independence, wanderlust, and self-discovery.

It’s no accident that the movie’s visuals and narrative bent resemble “The Little Mermaid” and “Hercules.” Directors Ron Clements and John Musker helmed both those films (along with crown jewel “Aladdin”) and their golden touch remains. They direct Jared Bush’s screenplay with a clarity that’s been lost on so many modern animated films, concerned with what makes their characters tick over what makes toddlers giggle. There’s plenty of that, too, but the characters are number one, serviced by visuals, music, and writing all.

An extended voice cameo from Jemaine Clement (reprising his “Flight Of The Conchords” David Bowie tribute vox) as a materialistic crab is a highlight – but also highlights the movie’s biggest blemish. The studio’s onetime talent for iconic villains is nowhere in sight, with no consistent or compelling baddie for Moana to triumphantly take down. The giant lava monster that shows up for the picture’s climax is a fine creation, but it’s mostly disconnected from the rest of the story. And Clement’s crab isn’t around long enough to do any real damage.

Thankfully, Clement’s “What We Do In The Shadows” co-conspirator Taika Waititi has his fingerprints all over the movie’s sense of humor. (The New Zealander is one of many with a “story by” credit.) His idiosyncrasies are most noticeable in Maui, a funny character with the doubly tricky duty of being weird and heroic, but not so heroic as to overshadow Moana. Their dynamic ends up a masterful balancing act between friendship and distrust, much like in Waititi’s recent “Hunt For The Wilderpeople.”

In the end, Moana is flat-out good storytelling, both silly and stately, enhanced by across-the-board excellence from all involved. Miranda’s songs hit, the voice cast effortlessly inhabits their characters, and the animation is often unspeakably gorgeous. As both WDAS and Pixar had recently drifted towards muddled storytelling, “Moana” is a big course correction towards streamlined, classic animation. It’s a win for everyone involved – especially moviegoers.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 23, 2016
Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Director: John Musker, Ron Clements
Screenwriter: Jared Bush
Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement
MPAA Rating: PG (for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements)