The Disney fairytale mold sets sail for Polynesia in “Moana,” the studio’s latest animated musical featuring a strong female lead character, and a film hoping to build off the success of “Frozen” and “Tangled.” Although audiences are unlikely to be as familiar with ancient Polynesian mythology as they were with the stories of Rapunzel or Hans Christian Andersen, “Moana” isn’t all that different from these films; Disney has simply dressed its contemporary revamp of the tried and true fairytale formula in oceanic trappings.
Although mentioning any kind of formula may seem dismissive or chiding of “Moana,” the film absolutely works thanks to a healthy dose of creativity and heart, not to mention self awareness. Despite seven Disney minds claiming a story credit on the film, the studio wisely assigned scripting duties to Jared Bush, writer of its previous 2016 hit, “Zootopia.” The writing has some of the same edginess, quirkiness and self-awareness of that film (and others) that has allowed Disney’s house brand to churn out better films than Pixar of late.
Combine that with Disney’s longest-working directing duo of Ron Clements and John Musker (“The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Hercules”) and you get an animated feature that’s both exciting and different yet fundamentally sound and familiar. Nothing about the “Moana” story is surprising. Heard the one about the girl who comes from royalty, has an overprotective father, longs for something beyond what she knows and must go off on an adventure with animal companions and fulfill her destiny? Exactly. But “Moana” knows that.
In fact, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) insists she’s not a princess. And her problems aren’t typical of a princess, specifically that she doesn’t want or need to love anyone or marry someone. The movie really centers on her personal adversity. Although she faces some standard Disney conflicts from outside forces including her father’s stern rules (Temuera Morrison), a cocky travel partner in demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and some creatures on her journey, there’s no clear villain, at least not one who needs development. Ultimately, she must outlast nature and stand up to or outsmart male characters and believe in herself to succeed. Nicely done, Disney.
Yet creativity does more for the movie than feminist underpinnings. Heihei the chicken, the dumbest and strangest animal companion of any Disney movie (voiced of course by Alan Tudyk doing nothing but squawking), provides countless off-beat laughs while Johnson does nicely with the traditional silliness, slapstick and braggadocio humor more common of animated features. The ingenuity of his transformations and tattooed cartoon self being a secondary character help elevate the entertainment in a major way. A second act appearance by Jemaine Clement voicing a giant crab is also a highlight, and his atypical song is absolute brilliance if you listen closely.
Riding the waves of success from “Hamilton: An American Musical,” composer/songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fingerprints are all over the “Moana” soundtrack. His incredible verbal flow is on display in Johnson’s song “You’re Welcome” and the aforementioned Clement song “Shiny,” while the film’s piece de resistance, “How Far I’ll Go,” floods the story with emotion each time it shows up in a way that makes “Let It Go” feel like a hit song rather than an essential part of “Frozen.”
Even in the form of a predictable story, this degree of heart, in tandem with the visual beauty and creativity, make “Moana” another successive hit for Disney. All formulas eventually grow tiresome, and the template that allowed “Moana” to thrive will eventually need to be reworked, just as Disney had to do with its animated musicals in the 2000s, but for now it’s on a roll.
Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker and Chris Williams
Written by Jared Bush (screenplay), Ron Clements & John Musker, Chris Williams & Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron & Jordan Kandell (story)
Starring: (voices) Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison