UK Release Date: 2nd December 2016
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Ron Clements, John Musker
Writer: Jared Bush
Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk
Synopsis: A princess decides to leave her island home behind in search of a demigod who can help her to rebalance nature and therefore save her people from impending darkness.
Disney is dominant over the world of cinema, whether it’s with Pixar’s world-beating animations, the superhero behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the ever-expanding Star Wars franchise. Their animated division has also been unstoppable, whether it’s with this year’s excellent Zootropolis or the absolute phenomenon of Frozen. Their latest movie musical is Moana, which eschews glamorous princesses and charming animals in favour of a huge adventure set among the Pacific Islands.
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the heir to the throne of a small island, currently led by her father (Temuera Morrison) and mother (Nicole Scherzinger), who ensure that all of the island’s residents stay there in safety. Encouraged by her grandmother (Rachel House), Moana is drawn to the water and decides she must embark on a quest to return the heart of ancient being Te Fiti, which was stolen by the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). With her chicken Heihei (Alan Tudyk) at her side, she travels the water to find Maui and restore the natural balance before the darkness that is spreading across the oceans reaches her home.
Disney has set itself a remarkably high bar of late and, though Moana doesn’t raise that bar, it does manage to just about match it. It’s a charming movie with a genuinely gripping adventure plot and plenty of comedy, including some wryly observed jibes about other Disney animations (“if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess”) and real wit. Much of this wit is delivered by Dwayne Johnson, who continues his remarkable run of recent form as Maui, who gets many of the film’s best lines and really comes in to his own as a bundle of musclebound arrogance. He even gets a reference to his wrestling past, with a flash of his iconic ‘People’s Eyebrow’.
Johnson also benefits from one of the film’s best songs, in the shape of fast-talking boast track ‘You’re Welcome’, which is a classic Disney song. The music across the board, from Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda is at once uniquely styled and entirely in keeping with the Disney feel and ethos. Moana’s major showcase track ‘How Far I’ll Go’, nominated for a Golden Globe this week, is a real earworm that you will absolutely be singing as you leave the cinema having seen the film, despite the now traditional terrible pop cover that plays over the end credits. Cravalho, though, has a tremendous singing voice as well as the kind of spiky charisma that prevents her from being an identikit princess.
Moana doesn’t have the depth and narrative of a Frozen or a Zootropolis, but it does work as a straightforward, fun adventure. It’s powered not by allegory or by a deep sisterly relationship, but by its gripping story that keeps the characters moving and provides several fun twists on the Disney animated formula. Supporting characters are few and far between, with Johnson and Cravalho mostly left alone, but there’s a show-stealing cameo for Jemaine Clement as a villainous crustacean prone to gaudy decorating.
The film also boasts some of the most impressive animation Disney has ever produced. Like Pixar’s visually stunning The Good Dinosaur, there is a photoreal sense to the landscapes, particularly in the dynamics of the water. The stylised characters we have come to expect from Disney are given a visually dynamic world to inhabit, which only enhances the film’s love for the natural world. It’s not got the instant classic feel of Frozen, but like its central character, it carves out its own path.
Pop or Poop?
It may not stick in your mind as much as some of Disney’s other recent output, but Moana is in many ways the perfect family blockbuster for the festive period. The two central voice performances are deeply impressive and it’s intriguing how the script elegantly shifts the traditional Disney princess narrative to create something that feels both classical and modern.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
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