I want to get this out of the way so you can watch the movie without anything resembling a spoiler, so here’s the pitch:
Moana is the best #Disney movie since The Lion King. Yes, it’s better than #Frozen. Yes, it’s better than Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia. Even Lilo & Stich, #Mulan, #Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
It’s objectively, unequivocally, even effortlessly the best thing Disney has made in decades, and it will and should be considered a new all-time classic for Disney some day soon. Moana is a masterpiece, not because it’s somehow perfect or perfectly polished, but because it’s exactly right. It’s the right timing, the right environments, the right characters, the right story, the right everything we’ve been waiting to see from Disney, years after the studio essentially stopped taking a massive creative risks in favor of medium and small-sized ones.
Moana The Musical
The Disney musical was once an all-powerful mandate for animated children’s films. Hand-drawn characters? They have to sing. Upbeat protagonists? They’re going to sing their way to the finish line. This has been prevalent since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney’s first real movie), and it’s been more or a less a ticket sales printer for live-action movies, too, probably up until Newsies or even well before that with Pete’s Dragon.
In fact, it wasn’t until #Pixar came along with Toy Story that Hollywood decision-makers started to feel comfortable with animated movies that don’t also feature singalong discs. Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter were adamant about making sure Toy Story was not a musical, and they’ve stuck by that North Star many movies later.
All the while, Disney has progressively moved far away from the musical genre, dropping it entirely throughout the early and mid–2000s, only to be revitalized (in part) by #Enchanted, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled. Then Frozen happened, justifying to Disney in a big way that audiences still want musicals, just not for every single movie that comes out, animated or otherwise.
Moana, then, feels like a fully realized musical. Written from start to finish to accommodate a true working of the genre, because it’s probably the first movie Disney’s made in years that fully embraces catchy song numbers that are woven into the DNA of the movie’s story and visuals.
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So, what’s it about? Moana is the future chief of her island, an isolated paradise where the villagers are forbidden from leaving the reef due to dangerous storms that make the sea much more treacherous than it used to be. But of course, Moana yearns to be a voyager like her ancestors, and she also struggles to balance that desire with the obligation she has to serve her people.
Ultimately, though, the threat of the storms inches closer to their village, chasing away their food and poisoning the island. So Moana has to embark on a journey to help Maui, a long-banished demigod and restore the heart of a goddess to her island, in the hopes that this will finally quell the lurking dangers of the ocean, so people can voyage from island to island again.
That probably sounds like a lot of information, or perhaps too detailed for a review, but this is all just scratching at the surface of what Moana is really about and which directions it takes. Though it’s mostly a simple and straightforward story with few characters, it contains a rich mythology that the movie is incredibly proud of, and it reminds the audience of its grand scope in every single scene, giving this new world a more interesting sense of location than almost any other Disney film I’ve ever seen.
In addition to that, the handful of characters we do encounter are incredibly compelling, because we spend a lot of time watching them change, grow and react to each set piece. Moana is obviously a highlight, less #DisneyPrincess and more Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon. She’s fierce and competent, but also flawed and quite aware of her shortcomings. She has real doubts about this difficult journey ahead of her, and the budding friendship between her and this larger-than-life demigod Maui is constantly engaging and even emotional at times.
Speaking of Maui, there’s not too much to get into with him, mostly because the trailers have already given a fair overview of his character (if you've happened upon them). He’s egotistical and brash, but not in a villainous sort of way. The real surprises with him need to be seen to be appreciated.
Visuals, Music And Story
Over the years, we’ve gotten plenty of Disney films with great stories and characters, but what puts Moana so far ahead of them, at least to me, is how the movie masterfully marries the visuals, story and music together. We really haven’t seen something like that since The Lion King — despite a great story and soundtrack in Mulan — simply because the visuals in that movie just weren’t anything revolutionary.
But every second of Moana is absolutely stunning, and there are a lot of groundbreaking animation achievements in this movie that I’ve never seen from a computer animated film. And that’s made all the better by, as I said before, the right story and music to complement it.
I did like the music in Frozen, at least one or two songs. But Moana doesn’t have a weak song in the bunch. This is one of those few musicals where I actually got excited as soon as a song started, simply because the movie does such a great job of using music to its advantage, shedding light on character and motivations that brief dialogue just can’t pull off. And like any great musical, the strongest songs in the mix are repeated and evolved throughout the movie, so you have a real sense of the film’s musical identity by its finish.
All that said, Moana was a real surprise for me. It shows a willingness on Disney’s part to take what made Frozen so refreshing and welcome, and then make something completely better in every way. And while I don’t know how ready the world is for a movie like this, I fully expect Moana to top the hearts of many kids growing up today in the same way that The Lion King, #Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast were major milestones for me.
Moana hits cinemas on November 23. Enjoy the trailer below and tell me why you're excited to see what's sure to be Disney's next big hit.