It is a widely accepted fact that Disney are the absolute powerhouse of cinema, summarised perfectly by their record-breaking box office year, succeeding where their counterparts suffered major misfires. Their work - be it their Pixar or Animation branch - appears infallible, particularly over the past few years where they have surged to the pinnacle of animation. But will their oceanic tale Moana, following the terrific Zootropolis from March of this year, manage to marry up their extortionately high standard or wither in its shadow and success? Let's see...
Always intrigued by the water, Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) takes to the ocean on a quest to save her Island from an increasing drought in food and supplies. Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a demigod, who once stole a powerful stone that caused the darkness plaguing the island, joins her voyage across the vast Pacific - where they encounter monsters, dangers and impossible odds in the hope of leading her fellow villagers to a new land. As 'the Frozen phenomenon' attempted in 2013, it is a new take on the 'princess' sub-genre, with obvious feminist influences included, such as championing the female lead for her talent and skill rather than her looks. However, like my good friend Ryan from over at MorrisMovies pointed out in his review for the film, "(Moana) does exactly what Frozen so desperately wants to do", allowing Moana to stand head and shoulders above its musical counterpart in its portrayal and representation of its female star and the theme of feminism in general.
Disney films have always had the magic of looking absolutely incredible, but Moana takes that to a whole new level; it could very easily be their most exquisite and gorgeous picture to date, blowing pretty much every other genre stablemate out of the water entirely. Animated with such rich detail and populated with such exuberant, vivid and vibrant colours, there is always a marvel to behold, with the tropical Hawaiian setting coming to life as we have never seen before. From the movement and fluidity of the water - which plays an important role in the film and is often very difficult to appear natural - to the lava demon and the island goddess, is it continually engaging on a visual level and demonstrates the magic that can be achieved within the genre. As I only saw the 2D version of the film, I can only imagine how spectacular it looked in 3D - but if the conversion is nearly as wonderful as anticipated, it is probably well worth the increased ticket price if the option is there. It continues to demonstrate why Disney films are such a success, meeting and even exceeding the pinnacle of animation they are already associated with, all explored terrifically by Ron Clements and John Musker.
Moana's characterisation is top-notch here, evident through the titular character herself; Moana is depicted as a skilled, warm-hearted and kind-natured girl on a journey to discover her true identity, creating an inspiring tale that deserves to be taken to audience's hearts as they did to the female leads of Frozen - if not, even more so. Cravalho's passionate voice performance is magnificent and infectious, making her the perfect fit for the role, coming across a very sweet but headstrong character - very often at the same time. She is one of Disney's most well-defined and sketched characters of all time, with her determination not going unnoticed in a moment of film's entire runtime, giving the film a great focus through and through. Maui is far more one-dimensional than Moana but even he is awarded his own character arc that depicts his realisation that Moana is far more skilled than he gives her credit for, with Johnson capturing his journey with great enthusiasm. The story is one that, although not revolutionary and sometimes in need of a little shake up and few more risks being taken, is an inspiring watch and totally engrossing. Moana's first act features some of the best work in the genre of all time, acting as a masterclass in introducing characters, building a world and setting-up a story without ever overwhelming audiences. A few minutes could be trimmed from the second act, including an entire scene where the pair attempt to recapture Maui's magical fishhook, which feels squarely aimed at younger children while only slowing down the thrill and enchanting journey for everyone else (it feels more Illumination than Disney), but the runtime generally races by in a whirlwind of beauty and inspiration. Its feminist influence, while clear, remain subtle and nuanced enough to avoid feeling completely forced upon audiences, whilst still managing to inspire those smart and mature enough to understand them.
Moana also comes to life from the very first moment, with the music making for a joyful experience. While never quite as memorable and defining as Frozen's Let It Go, the music in general is of a far higher calibre, with some beautiful melodies and lyrics that fit perfect into the story. Musicals, particularly those from the ever-cheery Disney, can be a difficult ground to tread, with the need to avoid lyrical and thematic copies: Moana perfectly avoids falling into this trap, with each song feeling as distinctive as the last with a beautiful uniqueness to each one - topped off with strong musical performances from the two leads in particular. The music enhance the emotion of the scene without ever overwhelming it, creating a charming addition to the film that encourages it to stand out from the pack this festive season. It was surprising to see the film consider so many different tones too - it was funny, thrilling, scary and silly (not always for the best but we can forgive and forget) - once again confirming that this features something for everyone.
Moana is a terrific film that proves why Disney have become such victors in the animation game; the film's sheer beauty and authenticity, wonderful voice performances - both their acting and singing - and inspiring lead and themes ensure this goes right into the 'greatest' folder and tops off the year perfectly for the film studio. It's heartily refreshing, not for this story to be told, but for it to explore Hawaii and a culture (Polynesia) almost entirely absent from our screens and with such encouraging themes to be handled and present in a film aimed at families. It is never quite revolutionary or unique enough to be one of Disney's more defining efforts but it doesn't need to be; it does the basics well enough, and more importantly, to Disney's high standard, to be throughly enjoyed as the coming-of-age animated adventure it is.
Summary: Moana is a visually stunning, culturally deft, well-acted and thematically deep coming-of-age animated delight that confirms again why Disney are at the pinnacle of their field.
Highlight: The first act is absolutely brilliant animation. It honestly cannot be faulted. If it kept that up, it would very easily shoot straight to the top of my year-end list.