There’s a certain formula present in most films to come from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Our hero starts out with a quaint, idyllic life before a conflict emerges that threatens that very way of life. Typically, a beloved relative passes away before our hero sets out on their journey in which they learn valuable lessons about themselves, overcome adversity, and bring forth a victory that resolves the conflict and allows the hero to take their rightful mantle. The latest film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Moana, sticks to the formula, yet it works in part because of that formula and entertains with a sharp wit, a few dazzling sequences, and the catchy songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. There’s little that will surprise older audiences in Moana, but the film consistently entertains despite its formulaic construction.
The movie opens with Gramma Tala (Rachel House) regaling the young children of the island village of Motunui with legend of the shapeshifting demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). The demigod with his magical fishing hook stole the Heart of Te Fiti, which holds the power of creation, in the hopes of sharing the magical powers with humans, though by taking the heart Maui has awakened the dark spirit of Te Kā, a demon consisting of volcanic fury and destructive power. Thousands of years later, young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) dreams of a life beyond the reef that of Motunui, though her father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) demands that she stay put, as the people of Motunui are forbidden from travelling past the reef into the unforgiving current of the ocean. When the harvest of island is turned to ash due to the darkened spirit of Te Kā, Moana must disobey her father and travel past the reef in order to find Maui to return the Heart of Te Fiti and end the plague that endangers her people.
Moana is the latest Disney Princess, though the character herself takes exception to the label of princess. It’s nice little meta moment within Moana that gets some good chuckles, but doesn’t change the fact that she is, in fact, a princess. The character goes on the formulaic hero’s journey that is subject of so many different Disney movies along with her own animal sidekick in the cockeyed Heihei, which provides the film’s strongest element of comic relief. Also providing a number of laughs are the living tattoos that adorn Maui’s body, working as both a comedic device and the living conscious of the character.
Each Moana and Maui have to find their inner strength, as happens in these movies, before they can overcome their challenge and emerge victorious. We’ve seen this before, and yet it still works, which is a testament to the hard work of the film’s team of directors (Ron Clements and John Musker and co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams) and writers (screenplay by Jared Bush and story by Clements, Musker, Hall, Williams, Pamela Ribon, and Aaron and Jordan Kandell).
Despite the formulaic construction, there are still thrilling moments in Moana that stand on their own. One fantastic sequence involves a fleet of pirate coconuts, their arrows flinging in the direction of Moana and Maui’s modest vessel. It’s a swashbuckling scene with inventive character design and visceral action, a balance of suspense and comedic action. Another stunning scene involves the ornate crab Tamatoa (voiced by Jermaine Clement), who is decked out in gold and treasure; a character driven by his own grandiosity which is played as a weakness. Tamatoa sings his song in the midst of battling our characters in a funny, lively scene that marvels with its brazen use of color that shifts as the scene progresses.
The songs of Moana are written by the mastermind behind the Broadway smash Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda and provide the film with its musical heart. Those familiar with Hamilton will obviously pick up on the similarities in the song structure, but Miranda’s songs hit a variety of musical genres that range from comedic to inspirational to those that tug on the heart strings. The real standout numbers are “You’re Welcome,” which gives Dwayne Johnson a chance to show off his singing skills (is there anything he can’t do?) as well as provide depth to the demigod’s psyche, and “We Know the Way,” an inspirational song that has an infectious melody. The mercurial talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda has been well-documented, but Moana shows us just why Disney is so eager to work him. (He’s already been signed to work on the upcoming Mary Poppins sequel.)
Moana isn’t a game changer for Disney or really anything that new, but it succeeds because of its assemblage of talent that keep this standard hero’s journey feeling lively and fresh. That trademarked balance of humor, heart, and catchy songs have been the standard of Walt Disney Animation Studios since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When a formula has worked for so long and laid the foundation of a media empire that spans the globe, there’s little reason to deviate too much and Moana proves that the formula still works wonders.
While sticking to the formula of the hero’s journey that is the subject of so many animated Disney movies, Moana still entertains with its comedic wit, the catchy songs of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a couple of stunning sequences that feature some incredible character design.