January 9, 2017
The Walt Disney Animation Studios owe a hell of a lot to Ron Clements and John Musker, the directors who arguably more than any others came to define the tone and style of the studio's feature film output from the mid-1980s. Their directorial debut The Great Mouse Detective was something of a warm-up, but with their second feature The Little Mermaid they knocked Disney's animated films into a commercial and critical stratosphere. The film kicked off what is widely referred to as 'the Disney Renaissance', an unparalleled string of high quality and hugely successful films that ran from The Little Mermaid in 1989 through to Tarzan in 1999. During that period Clements and Musker also directed Aladdin and Hercules, and subsequently they also delivered the underrated Treasure Planet and the excellent The Princess and the Frog. To a large extent Moana may be seen as the culmination of their directorial careers.
Moana is at least as good as any of their earlier films, and it contains numerous similarities to all of those works. It contains the rather earnest and gracefully constructed quest storyline of Treasure Planet, the humorous mentor/sidekick of Hercules, the top-notch music and songs of The Little Mermaid, and the sharp pop culture-savvy humour of Aladdin. While the film gets a fresh and distinctive aesthetic and content via its Polynesian setting and mythology, structurally and tonally it is a classic Renaissance-style Disney film through and through.
The songs really are fantastic, composed in collaboration between Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i of Oceanic music group Te Vaka, and Hollywood composer Mark Mancina - whose previous Disney work includes both the score to Tarzan and work with Hans Zimmer on The Lion King. Like other post-Little Mermaid features, the songs are used not as individual entertaining sequences but markers of plot progression and developing characters. While there is arguably one song too many in the film's first act, they are exceptionally good - particularly the emotive and stirring "How Far I'll Go".
The animation quality is stunning. Some critics have noted that this is Clements and Musker's first time directing a CGI feature, but that claim tends to ignore the huge degree to which it was Clements and Musker's films that dragged Disney towards the use of computer-generated animation in the first place. It was on The Little Mermaid that computer-aided inking and colouring was tested, and key sequences and shots used CGI to develop three-dimensional objects such as ships and sails. In Treasure Planet the directors supervised the complex process of creating the cyborg Long John Silver, whose biological parts were hand-animated with his robotic components were rendered in CG. With Moana they shift seamlessly into a fully-CGI feature, but really it's an environment they have been preparing for their entire careers. The detail is phenomenal in the film, and the colours and layouts are visually rich and arresting. Several shots stand out in particular as some of the most beautifully composed I have seen in the past year, animated or live-action.
Disney should be commended for casting a strong range of ethnically Oceanic talent in its key roles, including Dwayne Johnson as Maui, Temuera Morrison as Tui, and a particularly strong Auli'i Cravahlo as Moana herself. Jermaine Clement has a fairly showy role as the giant crab Tamatoa, while Alan Tudyk - rapidly becoming a Disney mascot after Wreck-It Ralph, Rogue One and Frozen - does a weirdly superb job as the stupidest animal sidekick in the history of Walt Disney Pictures.
The film's action sequences deserve mention: they are both well conceived and very cleanly choreographed. The climactic confrontation with Te Ka is particularly well done. I am not sure Disney has produced a character so large and menacing since Fantasia.
If you are not a fan of Walt Disney's animated films, I honestly could not say whether or not you would enjoy Moana, but if you are one of the millions of viewers who has ever watched and enjoyed one of the studio's films I can absolutely promise you that Moana is one of their very best.