The release of Moana continues Disney’s strong string of animated features. I would go as far to say that it is the best “Princess” movie they have put out since Beauty and the Beast – which you will remember I called the best of Disney’s animated films – though the only real competition it has in that timeframe is Frozen. Of course, I would also argue that Moana has more in common with Aladdin than with Tangled or The Little Mermaid. Moana isn’t perfect but it’s collection of songs and set pieces, as well as its beautiful animation, make for an excellent experience.
Young Moana is the heir to chief on her small island, but she yearns to sail the seas, something her people do not do. When the crops and fishing hauls start to fail on her island, she embarks on a quest to find the demigod Maui who long ago stole the heart of Te Fiti, which is the source their problems, and force him to return the heart. While the plot isn’t remotely complex, it does its job well. Moana’s struggle is understandable, as is Maui’s. The bulk of the movie is taken up with catchy, engaging musical numbers and gorgeously animated action scenes and sometimes a combination of the two. I don’t know that there is a song in this movie that will take off like “Let it Go”, but the songs of a higher average quality than Frozen’s.
For as much of the film that takes place on the open ocean, Moana can feel a little suffocating. There are only two characters for the bulk of the movie: Moana and Maui. There is no villain or any secondary characters after the opening. All they have to play off of is the braindead chicken Heihei, a character I found insufferable but did delight the target audience. For most of the second and third act it is all Maui and Moana. They are great characters; don’t get me wrong, with a sort of Aladdin and Genie dynamic going on. Moana is one of the most dynamic protagonists in a Disney movie. The weight of the story falls almost entirely on her. She gets some advice from her grandmother and some sailing training from Maui, but she is the driver of the plot. Things don’t happen to Moana, Moana makes things happen. Maui is an over the top hero character who revels in his powers and fame, like a combination of Hercules and the Genie. His bravado is shown, though, to be there to mask his lack of self-worth.
As entertaining of characters as they may be, something does feel lacking with just two characters of note. Some of that comes from the film’s episodic nature. The islanders are there in the beginning, but disappear once Moana sets sail. Her and Maui tangle with a giant crab, but he’s only on screen long enough to sing a song. There are a few other misadventures, but the only consistent parts are that heroic duo. It sometimes felt like it needed a third angle, someone else. Specifically someone for Maui to interact with, since he only ever talks to Moana.
Moana is excellent, even my complaints about it seeming limited are more nitpicking than any real flaw. It feels like a traditional Disney musical, which is to be expected with Clements and Musker behind it. It looks great, with beautiful islands and appealingly designed characters. While it doesn’t do everything, everything it does it does well.