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Moana review: the Disney musical of a decade

You’re welcome

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Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

It can be tough to be the new addition to a revered franchise, especially one with the near-80 year history and clout of the Disney animated musical.

Tack on the intense pressure of being the daughter of royalty crafted by the modern world’s biggest and perhaps most controversial source of princess stories, and the expectations rise even higher and become even more nuanced.

So it’s a good thing that Moana is very, very good.

Walt Disney Studios

On the face of things, this should come as no surprise. Academy Award-winning writer/director and New Zealand native Taika Waititi penned Moana’s original script, while directing and further writing duties were given to a team whose shared credits include such instant Disney classics as Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Big Hero 6. None other than Lin-Manuel Miranda was brought on to pen Moana’s songs, and the film’s voice cast includes several Hamilton stars as well as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement.

And yet.

Moana flat-out wowed me, from its music, to its story and characters, to its sheer visual spectacle.

Walt Disney Studios

Our film opens with the people of the fictionalized island of Motonui, where the chief’s daughter, Moana (played by the 14-year-old Auli'i Cravalho) is torn between her dedication to her people and the insistent call she feels to voyage beyond the protective reefs surrounding Motonui to the open sea. The island is safe while the seas beyond are full of dangers and disease, her father (Temuera Morrison) maintains, and, as her grandmother (Rachel House) explains, they have been ever since the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the gift of creating life from the goddess Tehiti and was struck down by the villainous lava monster Te Kā.

But when disease and famine threaten Motonui, Moana sets off on a journey to find Maui, force him to return what he stole and save her people and the world.

A buddy adventure at heart, the majority of Moana’s scenes rest on the shoulders of Johnson and Cravalho, who don’t merely suffice in their roles, but excel. The film’s musical numbers are well-paced, well-placed, inventive and wonderfully sung. I’m pretty sure I caught a momentary Mad Max: Fury Road reference in the instrumental score, and when the story hit its climactic peak, I... might have cursed softly over the sheer aesthetic beauty of what I was seeing.

Walt Disney Studios

Moana has a relatively familiar mythic framing, but the story that directors Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall and Chris Williams deliver, has — if you’ll pardon the maritime pun — considerable depth. I had a nagging thought for the majority of my screening that a certain character seemed oddly underwritten, only to find that the two-dimensionality was deliberate and part of a major reveal. I wish Moana had one small scene to explicitly show a character’s third act turn instead of merely alluding to their motivation, and for the rare Disney movie where the protagonist’s parents are both alive, the role of Moana’s mother is minor and practically wordless.

But these are minor, minor quibbles for a beautiful, funny, uplifting story based on the mythology of and created with the collaboration of native Pacific Islanders, a group often marginalized in Western culture. Moana is not the first Disney princess to rebel against the rules of her society, and she certainly won’t be the last. But Moana reveals that her strength as a hero comes from her headstrong individuality, her family and her history in equal combination — not in opposition. It’s a message that Disney movies have attempted to sell before, with less skill, and less results.

Moana’s triumph should not be missed.

Also, if there’s any justice in this world, "How Far I’ll Go" will be the new "Let It Go."