Moana (2016)

It opens with the familiar Disney castle logo, accompanied not by the orchestral fanfare we’ve grown accustomed to, but a solo female singing in Tokelauan (a Polynesian language), joined by a fuller choir, then the pounding of drums layering on deeper impact. Before the action even begins, we are immediately cued that this is a very different kind of Disney movie.

Moana, the latest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios, is nothing short of a masterpiece. If Zootopia is (and it is) a gift to the mind through snappy dialogue and complex social undertones, Moana is a gift to the heart, operating on more of an emotional plane than an intellectual one.

There are moments of almost-overwhelming beauty, such as the toddler Moana meeting the living, personified water. In a completely wordless scene, the waves reveal a shell in the shallow end of a beach. Moana happily trots toward it, and the ocean gradually retreats further and further back, welcoming her to come closer. It’s a spectacular moment of youth, discovery, and destiny – like something out of a Terrence Malick film, not a mainstream animation studio.

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This scene, and many others, are heightened by spectacular music. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who brought us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, to name a few) are no strangers to crafting the animated musical, and Moana delivers moments as good as anything they’ve done. The songs are staged in very imaginative, artistic ways: “How Far I’ll Go (Reprise)” as a montage of Moana choosing to leave her home behind, “You’re Welcome” as a colorful mixed-media frenzy. The easy choice would have been to stage these numbers literally, and these veteran directors still have plenty of tricks up their sleeve.

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What’s also notable about Moana, and possibly its strongest trait, is how it reshapes what a Disney Princess is. Early on in the film, her father trains her how to be Chief of the Motunui and she goes through the motions of being a functional leader. She advises her people on where to plant crops after the harvest fails. She assists in building projects. She even butts heads with her father on where the fishermen should sail. This is truly the first time we’ve seen a Disney heroine functioning as a ruler – not in passing broad strokes, but actually taking on the responsibility of a leader.

Moana is another great entry in the immensely strong contemporary Disney canon. Its innovative storytelling, rich music, and terrific heroine will cement it as a story to entertain families for generations to come.

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