Way back, in the wake of directing 2009’s Princess and the Frog, Ron Clements and John Musker were lining up an adaptation of Terry Prachett’s Mort as their next enterprise. Prachett feels an unusual inspiration to add to the Magic Kingdom but an interesting one all the same. Whilst, alas, that grubby business of rights got in the way of poor Mort, the film the pair have produced instead puts Disney on much safer ground.
Moana‘s story is an intricate but familiar one. The eponymous Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) must quest to find the lost demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and return the heart of the goddess Te Fiti to it’s owner in order to save her blighted home island. The catch is that no one ever leaves the island – it ‘keeps us safe’ her father (Temuera Morrison) refrains. Moana however has, in a mirror contrast to Clements and Musker’s Little Mermaid, always felt drawn to the ocean. Indeed, an early scene showing the moment this connection is formed makes for a touching vignette. Her eventual voyage is an inevitable one but well earned.
It’s worthwhile to comment on the similarities Moana bears to its predecessors because really the film’s best asset is also its weakest. Moana is Disney through and through and it’s hard not to feel at times like here is presented a patchwork of previous, arguably more original, efforts. Johnson’s Maui is very much Robin Williams’ Genie, a third act heart-to-heart is a direct steal from The Lion King, whilst Maui’s animated tattoos feel reminiscent territory for Clements and Musker within their own back catalogue (see Hercules‘ vase gospels). The latter of these niggles is the most forgivable due to it being the only remnant of traditional hand-drawn animation in Clements and Musker’s segue to CG. It’s not entirely fair either to argue that Moana is sparse of originality. It is refreshing to finally have a Disney musical devoid of an insert-Prince-here love interest (how far we’ve come since Prince Charming), and the character development embraced by both leads in their growing relationship is as charming as it is genuine. Of the protagonists, Johnson is a rock (anyone?) in a dependable performance as Maui – his number: ‘You’re Welcome’, is irresistible – but it’s Cravalho that wins the heart. Cast aged only 14, and fresh from school at that, Cravalho takes centre stage as through born for it. In ‘How Far I’ll Go’ she belts out Moana‘s answer to ‘Let it Go’ with emotion truthful beyond her years. I repeat: 14.
In a world where supermarket television adverts can boast stunning animation it’s always a pleasure to return to the people that started it all. Moana and Maui have phenomenally frizzy barnets (much like Pixar’s Merida in Brave – another easy companion piece) and theirs is a lush world you will find comforting to enter. It’s a world that the directors did indeed enter prior to starting the project and it’s research that the film wears proudly. This is animation at its absolute finest and just looks gorgeous. Moana is also very funny with a handful of genuine belly laughs and, for once, in-jokes that don’t feel awkward and/or cynical. The film knows its derived heritage and wittily hints at this self-awareness. Johnson gets the best of the gags (‘If you are gonna start singing, I am gonna throw up’) but it’s the crowing rooster: Hei Hei that steels this show with slapstick idiocy a la Chaplin himself.
It doesn’t matter that you’re on safe ground with Moana – that’s merely a bonus for a supremely heartwarming fare. Of course the songs are a smash, not quite Frozen but very much earworms, coming from Broadway’s own Lin Manuel-Miranda. Here is a film for the ages – and one for all ages. Kids will love it, adults will adore it.