Review: Moana

Directors: Ron Clements, Don Hall

Stars: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House

It’s been a rather good year for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Back in spring they broke formula with the much-loved Zootopitropolis(whatever)ditching the princess angle so often leaned upon in favour of something more progressive, delivering a great message of inclusivity right along with it. And now, as the year draws to a close, we get Moana, an immensely entertaining and colourful adventure timed perfectly to dispel those winter blues.

This time Disney’s globe-trotting story-machine takes us to Polynesia. Credit where it’s due, the studio has a long history of inviting audiences to explore global cultures. Moana is another feather in a cap boasting some pretty good plumage. Titular Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of an island chieftain (note: not princess, although ostensibly…) set to inherit rulership of their verdant paradise. However, her preference, her aching dream, is to explore and set sail across the seas in search of discovery. It is her father’s doting cautiousness that keeps her on the shore.

Regardless, events conspire to set Moana on a journey across the seas anyway. She comes into ownership of a powerful gem stone stolen centuries ago from the heart of the distant island of Te Fiti by demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson). When Maui stole the stone he set forth the spreading of a pestilence which now threatens to engulf Moana’s home. With the spirit of the sea protecting her – and with the companionship of the world’s most delightfully stupid chicken, Heihei (Alan Tudyk) – Moana sets out to restore the gem and stop the spread of destruction.

The story and it’s beats here are well placed if predictable through and through, yet the wispy familiarity of the quest is given a whole new lease of life. This comes thanks to not just it’s timely environmental subtext, but also the immersive and staggeringly impressive visuals on display in what is, quite comfortably, the new benchmark for modern CG animation. Last year’s winter Pixar offering The Good Dinosaur was remarkable first and foremost for the photo-realistic landscapes that it’s decidedly cartoonish characters were thrust into. In particular the water effects in that film appeared to offer a distinct evolution for the form.

Moana takes the same approach and builds on it yet further. Disney being Disney there’s still a shade of cutesiness to the appearance of some of the film’s elements – particularly faces – but when looking at these characters’ surroundings, the attention to detail in what’s being afforded the audience is even more gratifying than ever. When the sea itself assists Moana – on occasions literally keeping the story on course – it brings to mind the water tentacle seen many moons ago in James Cameron’s The Abyss. The intervening years of advancement are evident in the rippling complexity of the creation encountered here, but more commonly it is the larger textural masses – the oceans and rock pools, the verdant hillsides and beaches – which suggest Moana will have great re-watch value for those simply dining out on its visual prowess.

It doesn’t stop there. One might be forgiven for assuming that this tale would be limited to a game of hop-scotch between oceans and islands, but directors Ron Clements and Don Hall take us on a surprisingly diverse journey through different environments. An underwater excursion pits us into deeper, cooler blues only to explode with the neon glow of bio-luminescence, while Te Fiti itself is protected by an enraged beast formed of lava and rock. The final act of the film feels it’s gloomy, threatening shadow, changing the colour palette again. Colour is used here to enhance the story, giving the Mount Doominess of the final act some blustery weight.

The range and flare of execution calls to mind the other great animated benchmark of 2016; Kubo And The Two Strings. As with that film, Moana invites Western audiences into an adventure steeped respectfully in a whole other heritage. What could read as cultural appropriation instead feels researched and informed. The stories told might be fabricated by minds sat behind computers in Hollywood, but the reach feels sensitive as opposed to exploitative.

Moana herself is another great female character for the studio in a series of choices that keep them toe-to-toe with Studio Ghibli’s similarly great legacy. Her relationship to Maui is one of grudgingly earned mutual respect, echoing the one seen earlier this year between Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde in Zootropotopia(whatever). Both characters here are also similarly allowed their share of the funny, but it is hapless chicken Heihei who conclusively steals most of the laughs.

The film is rated PG for mild threat, but it feels thoroughly universal in its appeal, never too childish or slapstick, never too dark or scary (unlike the aforementioned Kubo which I’d still keep from the very young). Yes, there are songs, and they crop up with more regularity than in, say, Frozen, and while a number stay true to the full-throated inspirational balladeering Disney films are known for, there are a couple of corkers in here too; Maui’s introduction “You’re Welcome” and a mid-film highlight “Shiny” performed by Jermaine Clement’s villainous crab Tamatoa are especially of note.

But the true delight here is the spectacle in the visuals, be it an inspired collision of 2D and 3D during Dwayne Johnson’s fast-paced singalong or a simply astonishing moment in which Moana washes up on a beach covered in sand. These are the micro pleasures that make a cinema trip the best bet for enjoying Moana. The writing may play things a little safe, but unless you’ve got a state of the art 4K home cinema system the size of a wall, leaving this ’til the DVD release might prove regrettable if it’s such moments that you’re after. Disney are world-beaters, and they’re currently on a roll. Keep up.

Score:  4

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