Moana full movie review - Never trust a big crustacean's impatience
If Frozen was Disney's (anti-traditional)wedding film - anchoring a snarky, tongue-in-cheek ill-advised pairing with family drama, dubiously scheming relations, anxiety, and outbursts of repressed ice powers (what - what was your wedding like?
) - Moana is the perfect Honeymoon, and ideal palate cleanser for a generation of preschoolers who just won't Let It Go. Fittingly, amidst the tropical paradise trappings, it's also a film with classicism on the brain, recruiting veteran The Little Mermaid directors Ron Clements and Don Hall for such a grand, old-fashioned seafaring 'hero's journey' Disney film you practically expect Moana to wave to Timon and Pumba along the way. It's telling that Moana is narratively rooted in the tension between respecting tradition and individualism, as the film plays like a tapestry of the greatest hits of where Disney has gone, while leaning towards frontiers it hopes to continue to push. And if Moana, one of the most lushly emotive, visually jaw-dropping, and inventively fun releases, not just for 'Modern Disney' but 'All-Time Disney,' the House of Mouse is in no danger of losing its mojo for untold years to come.
There's a comforting simplicity in Moana's three-act structure, but it's a familiar enough setup to momentarily risk getting too caught up tracking allusions to past Disney hits (Pocahontas' restless individualism in the face of tradition and environmental subtext; Hercules' moving artwork as surrogate Jiminy Cricket 'conscious', and so on) to follow the unfurling plot. Still, Clements and Hall attack it with gusto, and an almost primal resonance and depth of feeling that's a welcome callback to Ye Olde Disney Classics. If Disney has one overarching theme throughout its oeuvre, it's dissatisfaction with the status quo, and Moana (newcomer Auli'i Cravalho; luminously charismatic, and an almost eerily emotive singer)'s quarantine on her seemingly idyllic island paradise, taunted by the inaccessible sea she yearns to explore, each refrain of expositional tune Where You Are quickly becomes almost noxiously claustrophobic. Thankfully, the anthropomorphic sea and Moana's wacky- but-wise grandmother (Rachel House's creaky affectations, perfectly creased with heart) have other ideas - there's destiny afoot, and no time to waste.
As such, there's an almost tangible feeling of cathartic release when she finally Lets It G-ahem-bursts out to the sea, joining up with rambunctiously boastful demigod Maui (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, whose oaken tones impart an exquisitely larger-than-life playfulness) for a buddy-cop road trip steeped in carefully reverent Polynesian mythology. Their adventures are fun, but fairly rote and episodic, but we're still in 'Love Is An Open Door' meta-Disney mode here, and Clements and Hall are careful to pivot whenever cliché threatens to encroach. Here, the plucky, confident yet quirkily neurotic titular 'don't-call-her-a-princess' realizes the best way to honour her ancestral traditions is to seemingly rebel against them, the blowhard Maui is lent a deceptively downbeat backstory, and there's not a whiff of a romantic subplot to stifle the fun.
Instead, we plunge full steam ahead into a sublimely bonkers Mad Max homage chase with a murderous band of coconut pirates, a (sadly rushed) foray into an under- underwater Land of the Monsters, headlined by treasure-encrusted-crustacean Tamatoa (the effervescently witty Jemaine Clement, having a ball camping up his David Bowie-spoofing glam rock crab - geddit?). Eventually, the plot cascades into a showdown with a gigantic lava monster, which subverts expectations by poignantly furthering Disney's recent trend in unorthodox, nonviolent climax resolution (see also: Marvel's Doctor Strange). Moana's power ballad is 'How Far I'll Go,' and Clements and Hall certainly take her at her word.
Still, Moana truly reaches the realm of the greats as an almost flawlessly dazzling sensory experience. Showcasing arguable some of the most gorgeous animation ever to cross the silver screen, Moana dazzles in details grand and small, from the flecks of flame dribbling off the immense lava monster sizzling into the sea, from the breeze rustling through the coconut trees on Moana's home island, to Moana's grandmother's spirit gliding through the ocean like a spectral manta ray, only to soar into the sky, crashing into the constellations. The sentient ocean alone allows for a treasure trove of outstanding visuals - the money shot is its introduction, parting itself (take that, Moses) to create an ensconcing aquarium wall around toddler Moana, though if you've ever wondered what a wave cocking its head incredulously would look like, now you know.
Matching the sumptuous visuals head on is the gorgeous music, including the movingly earthy melodies of Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa'i, and the breathlessly nimble wordplay of Hamilton scribe Lin-Manuel Miranda, make Moana's soundtrack immediately rank among the most infectiously earwormy Disney tunes of all time. Tamatoa's setpiece alone is an unforgettable masterclass of sight and sound, as the humongous bejewelled crab turns into a bioluminescent disco ball, battering Maui while simultaneously poking at the film's 'love yourself' theme. Did I mention he rhymes 'demigod' with 'decapod' (look it up)? You don't see that in The Secret Life of Pets.
It may toe the line of over-familiar for some more jaded viewers, and it's less character-driven than recent compatriots Frozen and Zootopia, but Moana is still practically bursting with abiding excellence. Visually sumptuous, musically magnificent, neatly sidestepping pitfalls of convention, and lent a uniquely wacky charisma by the superb cast, Disney continues to push the envelope for considerate and mature storytelling - kid-appropriate, but also surprisingly resonant for the parents discreetly wiping aside tears beside them. All this, and Alan Tudyk cameos through the clucks of an impossibly stupid comic relief rooster. Is it any wonder the film's catchiest tune is simply titled 'You're Welcome'?