“There are so many impeccable visuals and moments of spellbinding animation”
American animation has seldom seen such consistency in quality as it has in 2016, and Disney’s Moana affirms not only the strength of the genre this year, but the strength of the Disney powerhouse once again. Since, I’d argue, Wreck-It Ralph all the way back in 2012, the animation company has been on a roll, cranking out some of the best animated works of the decade and rarely letting up, debatably surpassing Pixar in the quality department as well.
Disney’s Moana sits comfortably alongside Zootopia andFinding Dory as one of the finest animated pictures of the year, but usurps them as the most attractive, visually dazzling picture of the year – even moreso than the stop-motion, Laika picture Kubo and the Two Strings. The film is an immaculately detailed, visual marvel, with background and foreground elements like water and forestry, that normal moviegoers take for granted, protrude out and force you to notice them like never before. There are also lovely odes and inclusions of traditional, hand-drawn animation by animator Eric Goldberg that deserve an Oscar, or at least a short film, alone.
The film opens with the story of Te Fiti, an island goddess, who created all the life on the respective island before her small, stone-heart was stolen by a demigod known as “Maui.” But stolen from Maui was his magical fishhook. Fast-forward over a millennium later and both items have yet to be returned as our focus shifts to Moana Waialiki (voiced by Auli’l Cravalho), the daughter of a chief of a Polynesian island known as Motunui. She discovers the heart at a young age, and, as someone who is going to assume the role as a chief of the island one day, has progressive ideas about what’s behind this small island her and her family call home. Moana’s father, however, forbids her and the rest of the islanders from going past shallow waters, saying there’s no life out there and, if there were, it wouldn’t benefit the regressing state of their home anyway.
When Moana’s grandmother Tala (Rachel House) falls ill, she gives her granddaughter a piece of Te Fiti’s heart, saying that the other half is still possessed by Maui (Dwayne Johnson). With desperation to get the heart back and get her homeland functioning again, Moana disobeys her father and sets sail with her ne’er do well bird Heihei to find Maui. When her boat finally crashlands on his island, she realizes he’s a charismatic manipulator, despite being her only option being assisting him in getting his fishhook back so she can obtain the heart of Te Fiti.
Every minute of Moana feels like an enormous event and that’s not an exaggeration. Once Moana and Maui set sail from the island that Maui has been stranded on for years, the two basically encounter an entrancing, kaleidoscopic array of colors, creatures, and other characters that help or hinder their journey. Much of this keeps the film exciting but never desperate nor too manic to adequately function. Frequently, Moana catches its breath to let the wonders of character interest and culture take precedence over any kind of frenetic energy the film has to work out.
But this is the rare film where either-or is successful and well-warranted. Whether Maui is dancing, shapeshifting, or grooving his way through his “You’re Welcome” song-and-dance number or Moana takes time to reflect on who she really is and who she is trying to become, Moana pops and often explodes with energy. Again, some of the most fun and unpredictable moments occur when Eric Goldberg’s animation of Maui’s many detailed tattoos come to life, basically creating a story within a story. Maui’s silhouetted characters that are expertly articulated on his large, buff physique steal the show whenever they occur.
Moana‘s themes stretch beyond the kind of destiny and belonging narrative we’ve grown accustomed to for many years. It goes a bit deeper than the surface, as it tries to show the struggles of a young woman, who has been held back for most of her life by her patriarch despite apparently being fit enough to take on the role as chief of her island, in addition to the same young woman growing and dealing with the culture that surrounds her. Even if those morals are too lofty for one to accept, there are so many impeccable visuals and moments of spellbinding animation or inspiring musical numbers that there is ultimately some takeaway in the lovely and captivating Moana.
NOTE: Moana is preceded, as all Disney films, with an animated short-film called Inner Workings, an Inside Out-style look at how our heart, brain, lungs, stomach, and bladder operate. Without being too mawkish, it winds up being contemplative about age and free-will in a similar way that Up does. It should be a frontrunner in the Oscar race for Best Animated Short film this awards season.