An edited version of this review originally appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.
It’s been remarkable to see how Disney has been able to reinvent itself at the theater in recent years, doing away with decidedly outdated stories, most of them which can be summed up as Anglo prince saves Anglo princess.
The world has moved on from being constrained to such narrow-minded themes simply being the way of things. Wisely, Disney’s films have followed suit. With “Moana,” Mickey Mouse’s house dispels once and for all the traditional notion that there can only be heroes, not heroines, and that the most rewarding connections with others are always heteronormative romances.
“Moana” is as grand and epic as “Frozen” was intimate and personal, without losing any of the latter’s ability to tell a story with universal themes and messages.
Whereas “Frozen” portrayed relationships in an unorthodox way (at least by Disney’s standards), there is, refreshingly, no romantic subplot of any kind in “Moana.” Instead, Disney spins a tale about finding our place in the face of uncertain futures, while subtlety commenting on our duty to the environment.
It does it all through the strength of a monumental score and IMAX-worthy visuals. Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame lends his talents to the songwriting of “Moana” to wondrous ends, with every tune fulfilling a real purpose in the narrative while also managing to be compelling and emotionally stimulating.
The music works particularly well when complimented by the fantastic visual elements. At some points I had to remind myself that what was transpiring on-screen wasn’t live action. The animation is simply that engrossing.
Moana herself sets a new mark for how far Disney has come with its female characters. She is endearing, but also captivatingly independent; at times too curious for her own good in her larger-than-life quest, but never crossing a boundary where the audience questions her actions.
16-year-old Auli’I Cravalho deserves acclaim for her turn as Moana, providing a grandstanding performance as a voice actor and singer despite being having nary a single big-time acting credit to her name. The same goes for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the demigod Maui (who knew The Rock could sing?), a character with an engaging and thoughtful story arc of his own.
“Moana” also has laughs (a surprising amount of them coming from Moana and Maui’s companion, a chicken) for both the younger and older crowd. Parents, this is one you’ll want to watch with your kids, as the film also provides genuine thrills. One sequence in particular, a “Mad Max: Fury Road”-inspired affair, provides one of the best action action set pieces this year, lifting the film beyond the label of “just another kid’s movie.”
“Moana” has a lot to offer, with middle and concluding acts that are equal parts satisfying after a beginning that could have felt much more sluggish in different hands. Its biggest success, however, lies in how Disney is able to poke fun at itself for having been so reliant on one-dimensional stories of the princesses of yestercentury, in a way that signifies a changing of the guard.
Moana would never call herself a princess. As this film shows, she doesn’t need to be to aspire to something great.
‘Moana’ is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements
Starring: Auli’l Carvalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison
Directed by Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams